Prompted by a celebrity’s painful childhood revelation, growing cries to crack down on abusive practices in residential treatment programs for children and teens have reached members of Congress, who are now vowing to act.
A flurry of advocacy this week is being led by celebrity heiress Paris Hilton — who has spoken out about her time in a Utah program where she said she was strangled, struck and forcibly medicated.
In a series of media events this week, Hilton, along with ranking members of Congress, leading child welfare advocates, and former residents of youth residential programs, announced pending federal legislation to place strict standards on the youth residential treatment industry.
In a public discussion hosted by The Washington Post Thursday, California Rep. Ro Khanna (D) called the children sent to residential facilities where they are often abused or forgotten “survivors,” and vowed to better protect them.
“It’s just been incredible to see the survivors tell their stories, and it’s moved Congress,” Khanna said.
“These congregate care facilities should know that we are going to act,” he continued, “and it would behoove them right now to clean up their act because what they don’t want is to be hauled in front of Congress with subpoenas and testimony and investigations.”
Abusive practices in youth residential facilities across the country have been increasingly documented by legal advocates and the press. In December, The Imprint published an investigation revealing that children sent to facilities run by the for-profit Sequel Youth & Family Services were slapped, choked and punched by staff members.
Rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse has also been exposed at facilities run by nonprofits Devereux Advanced Behavioral Healthcare and Glen Mills School. And just last week, The New Yorker detailed chilling treatment of youth at facilities run by the international Christian organization Teen Challenge, calling the troubled teen industry a “shadow penal system for struggling kids.”
Hilton and other former residents sharing their stories publicly this week offered similar accounts.
“I was strangled, I was hit. I was cut off from the outside world,” said Hilton. She described being forced to take medication without a diagnosis, and being confined indoors for 11 months straight because she hadn’t earned the privilege of outdoor time.
Khanna said the legislation he’s writing, the Accountability for Congregate Care Act, will create a bill of rights for youth living in such settings, as well as set national standards that programs must meet or be forced to close.
Rep. Adam Schiff, also a California Democrat, has spoken in support of the legislation. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) has indicated he will sponsor the legislation in the Senate.
The bill of rights will include protections against solitary confinement, chemical and physical restraints, alienation from their peers, and the right to call friends and family — “just basic things that you would expect are the norms in these facilities, but are not the norm,” Khanna said.
The legislation is also expected to outline minimum standards of care and treatment that facilities will have to meet. Lawmakers aim to standardize the patchwork state-by-state regulation that has led to the residential care industry’s heavy presence in states such as Utah, Texas and Florida, where laws and accountability are more lax. The bill would also mandate data collection and create federal funding for states to implement the new oversight measures.
Schiff said the lack of federal regulation has allowed “bad actors” in the multibillion-dollar youth behavioral health industry to “make child abuse their business model.”
“Facilities that abuse children under the guise of care have absolutely no place in our society, and I will continue to push for strong legislation that increases regulation, oversight, and transparency,” Schiff wrote in an email to The Imprint.
During a press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill, a 12-year-old foster youth from Oregon shared her experience in a Montana treatment facility, where she said she was sent for help with “emotional challenges.”
“I was grabbed, thrown to the concrete ground, and put in a headlock,” she testified. “I was 9 years old.”
Pointing to the similarly abusive experiences of the 12-year-old girl and the Hollywood celebrity, Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin (D) said these are clear signs of how pervasive the problem has been across the country, for decades.
“You have someone that comes from a family of significant means, and someone that comes from a family of struggle; someone that’s privately placed, and someone that struggled through the child welfare system; somebody to whom it happened 20 years ago, someone to whom it happened two years ago — and they both experienced the same thing,” Gelser told The Imprint.
In the past, opposition to group homes has been separated into two camps: those concerned about the abusive treatment of foster youth, and those speaking out about unregulated treatment homes that mostly serve the children of the wealthy.
Last year, 16-year-old foster youth Cornelius Frederick was smothered by staff in a Michigan treatment facility run by Sequel Youth & Family Services, and died shortly thereafter. His death prompted several major child welfare organizations to launch a nationwide campaign to ban for-profit companies from running foster care services. Other organizations are calling to eliminate congregate care for foster youth entirely.
Meanwhile, another group of former residents of these programs — calling themselves survivors of such places — has also become increasingly vocal, telling their stories on social media as part of a group called Breaking Code Silence. The organization, whose work has centered on young people placed in treatment facilities by their families or schools, rather than the foster youth system, was catapulted to national recognition last year after Hilton revealed her painful experiences at Provo Canyon School in Utah and other similar “behavior modification” residential programs.
Breaking Code Silence has since grown to become a leading nonprofit generating data and promoting policy. The group also helped craft the forthcoming Accountability for Congregate Care legislation with congressional staffers. Partners include Think of Us, a nonprofit focused on improving foster care and pushing youth-led reforms and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Critics of the way many residential programs have operated say deceptive business models end up harming children — across the socioeconomic spectrum.
“It really is a matter of marketing, and who the facilities are selling their services to,” said Gelser, who has championed stricter oversight of congregate care in her state and nationally. “They tell one story to parents who are going to pay them a lot of money, and they tell another story to child welfare officials and juvenile justice officials and special education officials, and then they all end up in the same facilities,” she said.
Regardless of the funding stream, or why a child may have been placed at a facility, they’re treated the same, Gelser said: “chemically restrained, physically restrained, physically abused, humiliated, degraded and just really torn down.”
While some advocates hope their efforts culminate in the entire dismantling of congregate care for youth, Hilton said at a Wednesday event that she knows the facilities will likely live on, in some form. Her main goal, she said, is to ensure that children who do wind up in facilities are able to report what’s happening to them — and to be believed. She thinks this simple oversight could prevent much of the harm she and her peers suffered.
“If they knew that they were going to be held accountable for their actions, the people who worked at these places would be terrified to do anything,” she said. “Because right now they’re getting away with it.”