How Utah Became the Nation’s No. 1 Place to Send Troubled Teens

Editor’s note: This story was produced as part of “Sent Away,” an investigative podcast from The Salt Lake Tribune, KUER, and APM Reports that examines Utah’s teen treatment industry. You can listen to episode 6 here.

For years, Utah has been the epicenter of what is known as the nation’s “troubled teen” industry.

Some 20,000 children have been sent since 2015 to Utah teen treatment programs for parents and state agencies desperate to find help for troubled teens.

Some are on juvenile probation. They may be struggling with drug abuse or eating disorders. Some are depressed or defiant. Some cut themselves or attempted suicide.

And the companies that have taken them in have been lucrative, with parents or public bodies paying hundreds of dollars a day for the promise that the child will be helped. These teenagers are estimated to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the Utah economy each year, according to a research report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

There are more children sent to Utah for treatment than any other state – and that’s not even close. Over six years, from 2015 to 2020, 34% of all teens who crossed state lines to enter a youth treatment center ended up in Utah.

So how did Utah become the place responsible for helping so many troubled young people? It’s a complex combination of Utah history, culture, and rules and regulations.

Utah’s Impeccable Reputation

The industry originated in the 1960s, when a Brigham Young University student named Larry Dean Olsen began organizing wilderness outings with his classmates.

Leaders of BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have noticed that students who take these trips seem to do better in school and have better manners at home. School officials therefore developed a course that offered failing BYU students a chance at readmission if they learned survival skills and went on a month-long trip to the Utah desert.

It was on this basis that the lucrative wilderness therapy industry was born.

The parenting programs promised that wayward teenagers living and hiking in Utah’s scenic deserts and mountains would have a life-changing experience that would change their lives for the better.

Republican Senator Mike McKell, who last year sponsored the first reform in more than a decade of state oversight of the teen treatment industry, said the origin story of the private religious institution gave the industry “instant credibility” with parents in other states. looking for solutions for their teenagers.

“Utah has a very clean look, clean feel,” he said. “And we are proud of our strong family values. I think everything plays a role.

A “pioneer” at the school of Provo Canyon

By the 1970s, Utah’s youth treatment programs had expanded beyond hiking children across public lands. They also included congregate care facilities.

One program in particular that began around this time remains one of the most important: Provo Canyon School.

“You had kind of a pioneer in youth treatment programs with Provo Canyon School,” said Ken Stettler, a former regulator who headed the Utah Licensing Office, which oversees treatment programs across the country. State. “Probably almost anyone involved in dealing with young people these days can probably relate to Provo Canyon in some way. And the fact that a good number of people who worked there broke up and started other processing facilities.

Take for example the men who founded the Provo Canyon School in 1971: Eugene Thorne, Robert Crist and Jack Williams. They all started their own facilities in Utah – four in total – most of which are still in operation today. Other workers at the facility over the years, including therapists and administrative staff, have since also opened their own programs.

“You had all these offshoots that started,” Stettler said, “and most of them were people who worked there. So they were locals. They wanted to start their own program. They don’t want to not go to another state.

The age of medical consent

Utah is considered a “parents’ rights state,” meaning parents can make medical decisions on behalf of their children. So if a child is in Utah for treatment, they cannot leave the facility unless their parents accept it.

This is not what happens in other states.

In California, for example, a child must consent to mental health treatment if they are 12 or older. In Washington state, that age is 13.

Relatively cheap land and an enthusiastic workforce

According to Megan Stokes, director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, the lower cost of living in Utah compared to other states is another reason the teen treatment industry has grown. .

“There is a lot of land available,” she added.

Stokes also said Utah has an enthusiastic workforce, often students who take lower-paying front-line worker jobs to help care for children — either because they’re majoring in labor. social, or because they feel called to help young people.

“That’s where you have the talent pool,” she said.

About 30% of his organization’s members are from Utah, according to a review of their membership records.

Stettler, the former regulator, said that’s where Utah’s culture and deep ties to the LDS faith also come into play.

“People of this faith believe that their role and responsibility on Earth is to help each other and others who need help,” he said. “So the idea of ​​working in a facility where you can help a child change their life is appealing.”

Weak regulation

As the teen treatment industry grew in Utah, so did problems. There have been allegations of abuse. Riots. Deaths in wilderness programs. Sexual assault. Prosecutions.

Historically, these programs have been poorly regulated by the state; they are often allowed to stay in business even if regulators find that a facility violated state rules or a worker harmed children in their care.

Utah regulators have not shut down a facility in the past five years. The state came closest in 2019, when the Red Rock Canyon school voluntarily relinquished its certification after a riot and media scrutiny highlighted increasing violence at the facility.

Regulators are now scrutinizing these facilities more closely than ever after Utah lawmakers updated the law last year.

The new law placed limits on the use of restraints, drugs and seclusion rooms in youth treatment programs. It required facilities to document any instances in which staff used physical restraints and seclusion, and it required them to submit reports to state licensors. It also increased the required number of inspections that state regulators must perform.

Amanda Slater served as Director of the Office of Licensing for three years until she recently assumed another position with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. She said the new law placed regulators in facilities more often, which helped them identify problems more quickly. Previously, regulators only visited a program once a year and the inspection was scheduled in advance.

“Most people would clean their house before you showed up, right?” she says. “So you don’t always find the problems. If we are aware of it, we act. We are much more aware because we are there more frequently.

KUER reporter David Fuchs contributed to this article.

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