SALT LAKE CITY – Utah’s $400 million struggling teen industry is under renewed scrutiny as more than two dozen former residents allege mistreatment and abuse in a new trial.
The headlines are worrying families racked with worry trying to figure out which residential option, if any, is the right place for their children, Sen. Mike McKell said.
The Spanish Republican from Fork, who has sponsored recent industry reforms, says his phone is constantly buzzing with messages and calls from parents who want to make sure their children get help – not harm – in the centers.
“You shouldn’t have to call a state senator. You shouldn’t have to call a reporter,” McKell said. “I think we need to improve our transparency.”
Anyone can search for an establishment online license history, and the Department of Social Services is working to make more materials available to the public on its website, a spokeswoman told KSL. And the state is collecting more facility details now than a law 2021 requires more frequent inspections and more onerous reporting requirementsamong other changes.
McKell would like to see these inspection results readily available in a public online database. This is not yet the case.
In the meantime, KSL investigators spoke with the Youth Providers Association, a non-profit organization that represents businesses in the teen treatment industry. Its executive director, Mariah Hurst, said widential treatment is considered a last resort, it is an essential resource for young people in crisis.
Unannounced quarterly checks and other elements of last year’s reform are already having an effect, she said.
“The industry is safer, the industry is better, and there are more resources available for families,” Hurst said. Still, a series of questions can help parents determine the best course of action for their children.
What are your state’s resources like?
from utah mobile stabilization and response services can help children, parents and caregivers develop safety plans and learn about resources, including steps they might want to take before considering residential treatment, Hurst said.
“They can sort out and provide short-term support,” she added.
Hurst notes that teens and their families — or anyone else concerned — can use the SafeUT Website and an app to chat with an emergency worker or send a tip if they fear someone is being abused.
How do they measure success?
Numbers may be key, says Hurst.
“Any program should be able to provide very simple information about the data it’s tracking,” she added. She recommends digging into the details of the treatment methods they use and asking whether their practices are based on research showing their approach to be successful. Other good things to know: What kind of involvement will parents have during treatment and what kind of support is available after the child leaves the facility?
Does the institution work closely with the state?
Some centers have contracts with the Utah Department of Social Services to treat children who are already in state custody or who may soon be in state custody. The state requires them to be accredited, subjecting them to close surveillance. Many state contracts also accept private clients. If a company does both, Hurst said, “it’s already at the forefront of best practices.”
Are they accredited?
Any adolescent residential center must have a license to operate legally in Utah, but accreditation demonstrates an extra level of effort to serve children as best they can and meet the highest national standards, said Hurst.
The accreditation process is intensive and can take more than a year, Hurst said, with rigorous training and in-person assessments. Reviewers can show up to visit centers unannounced, and companies that reapply to maintain their good reputation face tougher reviews. Some of the criteria may not seem meaningful, Hurst said, “but overall when you add all of these different elements together, they create a very safe program for young people.”
Three common entities are the Council on Accreditation, the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Institutions and the Joint Commission.
Are they part of a professional network?
Hurst said it’s up to treatment centers to identify weak spots and find ways to fix them so young people aren’t victimized. It’s something members of her organization talk about regularly, along with other ways to improve, she said.
“The vendors I represent, we want the system to be healthy and useful,” added Hurst. “There has been some negative attention. But overall, these programs do so much for these young people with acute needs.
Have you experienced something that you think just isn’t right? KSL investigators want to help. Submit your advice to [email protected] or 385-707-6153 so we can work for you.