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Why did it take Paris Hilton to get Utah legislators to listen to complaints about youth programs?

Paris Hilton looks at Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, as they testify about SB127 before the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. The bill, sponsored by McKell, would better regulate centers for troubled teens.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Of all the testimony provided to the Utah Legislature Monday about abuses at youth residential care centers, Jeff Netto’s may have been the most powerful.

It was packed with the sort of emotion only a 42-year-old could feel while remembering the worst days of his life as a teenager suffering the constant humiliation of solitary confinement and restraint, sometimes for days on end, as well as being tethered to a bed on plastic sheets put in place to repel bodily fluids that come when you are denied use of a bathroom. It was compelling because he’s a native Utahn, an admittedly difficult teenager to deal with 29 years ago, and because, as he said, he would rather never have had to relive those days.

It was riveting because he spoke from memory, without notes, and because his words fought through choked tears.

But we never would have heard him if not for the power of celebrity. We never would have heard the emotion or felt the pain or, most important of all, turned a spotlight on Utah’s 248 license holders for congregant centers or its 5,600 young people in residential care — most from out of state — without the celebrity of Paris Hilton.

One of Utah’s own famous people, David Archuleta, has been quoted as saying, “People always think they know celebrities, but how can you when you’ve never met them?”

On Monday, Utahns who took the time to watch the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee met Hilton in a vulnerable and personal way, as she told about her own experiences as a troubled youth in a private facility in Utah.

It’s a good guess many people in this state have opinions about Hilton based on her public image. It’s probably an equally good guess that, for many adults in Utah, those opinions, at least until Monday, weren’t favorable.

And yet we listened. That’s the power of celebrity. And because of it, the state is finally, at long last, turning its attention to these facilities and how they are underregulated.

I know from personal interactions that not all such facilities are bad. Some truly care about turning around the lives of young people who are fighting addictions, anxieties, grief, trauma or a host of other things that cause them to act out. But some, as Netto, Hilton and others related in graphic detail on Monday, are places where kids are abused far worse than anything Charles Dickens could have imagined for David Copperfield.

This is a tragedy that spreads among many states, but Utah seems to be a leader — a place so remote in the minds of many that it must sound like a natural place to leave bad friends and influences and start over.

Each case that comes here is a story with two elements. One is a child acting in self-destructive ways and threatening to fail as a budding adult. The other is a parent, or a set of parents, who feel devoid of options and desperate for help. They are ready to latch onto a sales pitch; ready to spend thousands of dollars a month — anything — to get help.

But unless the state is willing to thoroughly and objectively regulate and investigate each facility, no parent can be sure what really happens.

And because no one will listen to the pleadings of a child who has lied and violated trusts again and again, abuses go undetected and unpunished.

But now we’re listening, and it’s because of a celebrity with her own anguished story, and with the clout to do something about it.

State Sen. Michael K. McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is sponsoring a bill, SB127. Among other things, it would establish strict rules about physical or chemical restraints. It would require a clear method for filing complaints. Most importantly, it would require the state to make frequent onsite inspections, including ones without advanced warning.

Would this be enough? Would it catch the bad ones? For the sake of the kids and the parents, we can only hope.

“I didn’t want to tell anybody this stuff,” Netto said in the hearing, his emotions rising. “That’s not how Utah acts. That’s not how we treat our kids.”

No, it isn’t. Thank goodness we’re finally listening.