Scandal highlights systemic abuse at teen behavioral centers

Behavioral schools for troubled teens have been making recent headlines, as former students have begun speaking out about abuse they’d sustained while under the school’s care. Perhaps the biggest story is coming from Provo Canyon School in Utah.

Paris Hilton protesting Provo Canyon School

Photo credit: AP/Rick Bowmer

Celebrity Paris Hilton recently went public with allegations that she was physically and mentally abused while attending Provo Canyon School in the 1990s. After she spoke out, dozens of others have stepped forward, claiming that the abuse was not an isolated incident.

Universal Health Services, the current owner of the school, didn’t own or run Provo Canyon at the time, and have claimed that they can’t weigh in on what happened to Hilton. However, students who have attended the school in recent years have made similar accusations, and overall, the reports go back into the 1980s.

The lawsuits are beginning to pile up, and some of the accusations are relatively damning. Plaintiffs spoke of repeated physical restraints, with up to 10 staffers piling onto young children. Some claimed to be sedated with medication, to the point that they felt like zombies. Others spoke of being left in isolation rooms for days for small infractions, such not getting out of bed, even though some heavily-sedated teens found it difficult to do so.

Provo Canyon School has remained operational for nearly 50 years — despite multiple lawsuits, a company bankruptcy, state threats to pull its license, and public accounts of abuse from prior attendees. In fact, a similar behavioral school in Utah was not charged for the death of a 17 year-old girl in their care, much to the disappointment of her mother.

How do Provo Canyon School and similar facilities remain open, despite the controversy?

Teen behavioral centers are a thriving industry in Utah, bringing unprecedented revenue to the state. Almost 100 youth residential treatment centers exist in Utah, and in the past five years, nearly 12,000 children have come through their doors. Parents pay an average of $30,000 for treatment, regardless of questionable reviews and the practice of frequently bouncing some children from one facility to another.

protesters in all black

Protesters were asked to raise their hand if they had been abused inside a teen treatment facility. Photo credit: David Fuchs/KUER

Is it legal for behavioral schools to impart such force, whether physical, via medication, or through isolation?

Depending on the agreed-upon contracts at behavioral schools, staff may use restraints only as they are deemed “necessary” and “reasonable,” given the situation. Any excessive or unreasonable use of force is not allowed, and force should only be based on controlling the subject efficiently, without causing undue pain.

Unfortunately, many variables exist, and when these cases come to light, it is quite often the child’s word against the facility’s. It helps when the school has cameras to properly document incidents, and/or a witness that can testify to any abuse endured. It also helps to understand patient’s rights under the 14th amendment.

Children, as well as adults, have substantial liberty interests that are protected from state action. This includes the right not to be confined unnecessarily for medical treatment. Citizens also retain the right to be free of unnecessary restrictions, once confined to a state institution.

In the case of behavioral schools, fundamental rights can only be curtailed if necessary to maintain order and security at the facility. Though parents should have knowledge of the school’s disciplinary practices and often do agree to them, these practices still cannot unduly burden a child’s constitutional rights.

If you or a loved one has sustained injury due to excessive force, abuse or isolation from a behavioral center, a skilled attorney in these matters can help you navigate the steps in finding justice. Call Allen & Allen today, at (866) 388-1307.