A California teenager who says she was abducted from her home and forcibly placed in a 14-bed lockdown facility in Draper is asking a federal judge to release her, arguing it violates her constitutional rights to liberty, speech and privacy.
Sarah Utterman, who turns 17 today, petitioned U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell for immediate release from Youth Care of Utah Inc., where she has been since August of this year.
The document, filed Wednesday, says Sarah's mother, Anne, paid a "large sum of money" to have the teenager taken from her home and put in the Draper facility after she was expelled from high school.
"The whole thing, as far as I am concerned, is an outrage," said the girl's attorney, Thomas Burton. "Basically, we feel it is unconstitutional to hire someone from out of state to spirit a teenager away to lockdown simply because they do not like what they are doing."
Burton claims the teenager's mother consented to place her daughter in the program on the recommendation of an independent educational consultant "connected" with Youth Care.
Sarah Utterman, the petition says, suffers from Lyme disease and depression and is in need of highly skilled assessment and treatment.
Instead of treatment, however, Burton says Utterman has been cut off from the world and put in a place where teenagers are "incarcerated against their will and without their consent for dubious treatment of a clandestine, undefined and unconfirmed nature."
While he has not seen the petition, a spokesman defended the residential treatment program.
"We feel very strongly it is a well-run, well-operated pro-
gram employing highly qualified, trained staff," said David Terbest, director of consumer affairs for Aspen Education Group, the parent company.
But in his investigation, Burton said he has tried to visit with the teenager and was turned away. In addition, a licensed marriage and family therapist from California who knows Utterman has had her letters returned.
The therapist, Elisabeth Feldman, is the one who brought the petition on the teenager's behalf, saying she is prepared to accept her in her home upon her release.
Terbest said such restrictions are not unusual and it is the parent's enrollment agreement that specifies the nature of the contact the child has, and with whom.
"This litigation sounds frivolous," he said.
Burton, who has gone up against the teen help industry before in civil actions, said he believes the secretive nature of such facilities should raise serious concerns for everyone.
"I can walk into San Quentin, and I have several times, and represent clients who have been involved in serious felonies, and no one can keep me from talking to someone," he said.
Burton added that Utterman, who has no criminal history, would enjoy more rights if she were in juvenile detention.
"If she had been charged with a crime, she'd be a lot better off because at least there would still be some access."
Burton also doubts the credentials of the facility and says for the same amount of money, Utterman could get treatment at the Kennedy-Kreiger Institute connected to John Hopkins University, a pediatric neuropsychiatric hospital in Baltimore, or at the Menninger Medical Center in Topeka, Kan.
"In those cases, you would know exactly the credentials of the people involved in the treatment and what that treatment is. None of that is possible here."
As a teenager nearing 17, Burton said Utterman should be involved in decisions affecting her care and not be under the complete "subjection" of someone else.
"It is a constitutional issue of major proportions."
Burton previously filed suit against the World Wide Association of Speciality Programs, headquartered in Utah.
Although he lost that case brought on behalf of a teenage boy who was held at WWASP's Samoa facility, Burton is appealing.
He was successful in his efforts against a now-defunct Utah Wilderness program in which a 15-year-old California teenager died of dehydration during a "forced march" in an Arizona desert.
Burton was able to obtain a settlement on behalf of the parents.