SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature has approved a bill backed by Paris Hilton to enact more regulations on the state’s “troubled teen” centers — a bill that would set new rules for the industry for the first time in 15 years.
The Utah House gave final legislative approval to SB127 on Tuesday night, less than a month after Hilton came to Utah’s Capitol Hill to give emotional and graphic testimony in front of a panel of Utah senators.
The bill now goes to Gov. Spencer Cox for his consideration.
In that Feb. 8 committee hearing, Hilton described how she experienced “unconstitutional, degrading and terrifying” abuse in the 1990s at Provo Canyon School at the hands of staff who she said forced her to take medication that made her feel “numb and exhausted,” watched her go to the bathroom and shower, and threw her into a “solitary confinement” in a room she described as “covered in scratch marks and smeared blood with no bathroom.”
Hilton has embarked on a push to enact more regulations on troubled teen residential treatment centers like Provo Canyon School, both in Utah and nationwide. The weight of the testimony from her and others baffled lawmakers, leaving some incredulous as to how such “disgusting” abuse of children had persisted for decades inside these youth facilities without accountability.
“This just adds some guardrails and some oversight that frankly has been lacking,” the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, said on the House floor.
Some House lawmakers tried to amend the bill. Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, sought to change it to only allow “inducing pain unless it is necessary to protect health and safety,” arguing kids can sometimes be violent to staff. Other lawmakers resisted the change, concerned it would leave the door open to abuse.
Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, also tried to amend the bill to extend the reporting requirement for use of restraints or solitary confinement from one business day to three business days, arguing “seclusion is not always harmful” and is “sometimes necessary.” He said the extension would allow treatment centers “a few more days” to report that tactic.
Brammer argued against the amendment, saying it’s the industry standard to require restraints or seclusion to be reported within one business day.
“This could be someone is secluded for three days before anyone knows about it,” he said. “It’s a big enough deal we do want the regulatory body to understand what’s happening and to know about it as soon as possible.”
Both attempts to amend failed.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who declared a conflict of interest because he represents someone who has sued because of these programs, said he supported the bill, but wanted to emphasize there are benefits that come out of residential treatment centers, which are often a “last resort” for families.
King “fervently” expressed a desire to “counteract the publicity we’ve seen.” While some of it is “undoubtedly earned,” King said he wanted to share the “tremendous good they provide to families across the state and the United States.”
“Based on long years of experience, these programs serve a vital need for families across the country and in Utah. They generally do great work,” King said. “There are problems on occasion. And we need to address those, and this bill does that.”
The House voted 70-2 to approve the bill, after the Senate approved it on a unanimous vote Feb. 16. Only House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, and Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, voted against.