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Paris Hilton returns to Utah for ceremonial bill signing to regulate troubled-teen centers

Hilton, Breaking Code Silence advocacy group now turns eye to federal reforms

Paris Hilton in support of changes to Utah’s troubled youth industry.
Paris Hilton holds a copy of the bill after joining Gov. Spencer J. Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Sen. Mike McKell and Rep. Brady Brammerat a ceremonial signing of SB127, Human Services Program Amendments, in the rotunda of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. SB127 increases transparency in Utah’s congregate care programs.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Paris Hilton returned to Salt Lake City on Tuesday to join Gov. Spencer Cox in a ceremonial bill signing for a law placing more regulations on Utah’s “troubled-teen” centers for the first time in 15 years.

The Legislature approved SB127 in early March, less than a month after Hilton came to Utah’s Capitol Hill to give emotional and graphic testimony in front of a panel of state senators.

Cox signed the bill March 22, but Tuesday he held a ceremonial signing with Hilton to highlight the new law. It seeks to put more government oversight on Utah’s youth residential treatment centers by requiring instances of physical restraints and involuntary confinement to be documented and submit monthly reports to the Utah Office of Licensing. It also bans chemical sedation and mechanical restraints unless authorized, and requires at least four inspections each year, announced and unannounced.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Gov. Spencer J. Cox sign SB127 during a ceremonial signing of Human Services Program Amendments with Sen. Mike McKell, bill sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, floor sponsor, and Paris Hilton in the rotunda of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. SB127 increases transparency in Utah’s congregate care programs.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Gov. Spencer J. Cox sign SB127 during a ceremonial signing of Human Services Program Amendments with Sen. Mike McKell, bill sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, floor sponsor, and Paris Hilton in the rotunda of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. SB127 increases transparency in Utah’s congregate care programs.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Along with the new law, lawmakers also appropriated $638,400 to fund eight new full-time licensors to conduct those three additional inspections per year and enforce the new regulations.

The governor applauded lawmakers for working together “on this very significant issue.”

“First and foremost, it’s about protecting the lives, especially, of our young people in these programs,” he said.

“There are some amazing facilities out there that really perform critical services to families and youth and there are wonderful stories of positive change. Unfortunately, there are also some horrific stories.”

The governor thanked Hilton for “sharing her own story very bravely and vulnerably and helping to shine a light on some of the bad actors and some of the bad things that have happened in the industry.”

In a Feb. 8 Senate 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 “solitary confinement” in a room she described as “covered in scratch marks and smeared blood with no bathroom.”

Hilton has embarked on a nationwide push to enact more regulations on troubled-teen residential treatment centers like Provo Canyon School, both in and out of Utah. 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.

“No child should experience abuse in the name of treatment,” Hilton said at Tuesday’s ceremony, thanking Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, for sponsoring the bill.

Hilton called the new law “a big step toward systematic change.”

“It means the world to me,” she said.

Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who has investigated allegations of abuse in youth facilities in her state, also came to Utah to celebrate Utah’s new law.

Hilton’s testimony in front of Utah’s Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee came after she talked about the abuse she says she suffered at the Provo Canyon School in her documentary “This Is Paris” released last year.

Ahead of the documentary’s release, Hilton told People magazine her parents sent her to a series of boarding schools claiming to focus on behavioral and mental development after they became fed up with her “sneaking out and going to clubs and parties” while the family lived at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

After her documentary, Hilton said she “started researching this industry once again and my worst nightmare was true.” She said she learned kids in those facilities “were experiencing the exact same things I was 20 years before.”

“I’m so incredibly proud,” Hilton told reporters Tuesday. “This is just the first step.”

Caroline Lorson, director of government relations for Breaking Code Silence, an advocacy group organized by survivors of abuse in the troubled-teen industry, also joined Hilton for Tuesday’s ceremony. She said “there are several other states where this is an issue and so we are currently in conversations with them to be able to implement reform.”

“But this is a building process. This is an issue that has been a problem for many decades so we know it’s not something that’s going to go away overnight.”

With the new law in place, “now people are going to be held accountable,” Hilton said. “Everything that was happening to me when I was a teenager back here would be illegal today.”

Hilton and Lorson, who also says she experienced abuse in a residential youth treatment facility, acknowledged that Utah’s new law won’t hold those who abused them accountable.

“The universe has an interesting way of working things out and I trust and believe that if we can change these laws to protect kids in the state now, we will find justice in our own ways,” Lorson said.

Hilton said her time at Provo Canyon School was “the most horrible experience I’ve ever been through in my life,” but “everything in life happens for a reason and maybe that needed to happen for me to use my voice to make a difference so it would never happen to a child again.

“But karma always does come back to people,” she added. “So I’m sure they’ve seen their karma or they will.”

After the bill signing, Hilton joined a panel discussion hosted at ABC 4 studios, moderated by anchor Glen Mills and recorded and broadcast on television later Tuesday evening.

Hilton, McKell, Gelser and others discussed the new bill and why it was important for them to get involved. McKell said he had a family member who years ago worked at a youth treatment facility and suffered a traumatic brain injury after an attack. He said it was then that he started “paying attention to this issue,” but it was Hilton’s advocacy that set the spark for sweeping reform.

“At that point I said, ‘You know what it’s time to fix this issue. There’s just too many. I don’t think I ever realized how many problems we had in Utah,” he said.

McKell said he and other Utah lawmakers didn’t “understand the full scope of what was happening in the industry.”

“It’s not because we don’t care, it’s because oftentimes we just don’t know,” he said.

McKell credited Salt Lake Tribune reporter Jessica Miller for investigating and reporting on issues within Utah youth residential facilities, and he applauded the newspaper for fundraising — for which Hilton was a donor — to create a searchable online database for violation reports and inspections of Utah’s troubled teen centers.

McKell said he hadn’t thought of creating a database, but it’s something he’d still like to see the state implement. The fact that local journalists had to create that database and not the state, “that’s problematic and something we should be doing,” he said.

McKell said those who think the law was created to address issues that happened 20 years ago need to understand these problems are still happening.

“We’ve had serious violations in 2021, we’ve had serious violations in 2020, 2019, 2018, and this is an issue that’s distressing and it’s current and I think a lot of my colleagues didn’t realize that,” he said.

Gelser said her home state of Oregon is also working on reforms, including regulations to not send children out of state to these types of facilities.

As other states work on reforms, Gelser said lawmakers need to listen to the youth survivors.

“The survivors are the experts,” she said. “The survivors have been telling us what’s wrong for a long time. … As legislators we just hold up the megaphone, but we need to do what these kids have been telling us all along. It’s that simple.”

Hilton said she never imagined she’d be back in Utah to celebrate the passage of a bill she helped support into law.

“I never thought I would ever want to come back to Utah again,” she said. “But now I love it here.”