Teens sent to Utah for treatment say they faced isolation and abuse instead
SANDY, Utah –They were teenagers who needed help, sent hundreds of miles from home as a last resort. But they say their experience at a residential treatment program in Utah was far from therapeutic.
In a new lawsuit filed Wednesday in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court, 26 former residents of Utah’s Vista centers for troubled teens contend they were barred from talking and humiliated in front of peers as discipline. The lawsuit says some faced blame and shame for reporting that adults – in one case a Vista employee – had sexually assaulted them.
Four years ago, when she was 17, one former resident remembers sitting on the porch at one of Vista’s Sandy centers, sobbing.
“I felt like I had no friends,” she recalled. “And I felt like my therapist hated me.”
An employee came outside to talk, telling her, “I would be your friend. I like you,” she recalls.
Her family hoped that just a few months at Vista at Dimple Dell would lift her out of deep depression. Instead, she says she was isolated and ostracized, leaving her susceptible to sexual grooming by the staffer who had comforted her on the porch. KSL does not typically name victims of alleged sexual crimes.
“People like him were only able to thrive because of the environment that Vista provided,” the woman, now 21, told the KSL Investigators. “They literally did half the work for him.”
After fellow students reported “physical interactions” between the 17-year-old student and the employee, he was eventually “let go”, the lawsuit states, but no one called police. Their sexual encounters occurred at a movie theater and in the back of a van, attorneys wrote in the court filings.
Instead, the girl was forced to apologize and at one point found herself sitting on a table surrounded by other girls in a group therapy session, the lawsuit states, facing blame for the employee’s departure.
“How did not even one single person say, ‘Hey, guys, this is wrong,” she said. “They would encourage the girls to literally bully me and just tell me about how horrible I am, and to talk about how amazing he was.”
She and 25 others who attended the programs in Sandy and Magna contend in their lawsuit that they were barred at times from talking to anyone, sometimes denied therapy and humiliated in front of peers.
The punishments were meted out for minor offenses like calling home to complain or wearing a ponytail without permission, according to the suit. But employees also doled out discipline for self-harm in one instance and shamed victims of sexual assault, court papers allege, forcing some to recount the specifics in group sessions.
KSL reached out to an attorney representing Vista. They have not yet responded. But a lawyer who represents a longtime Vista therapist – identified in the suit as a clinical director – denied claims of wrongdoing.
Attorney Scott Hagen said the claims are “without merit.”
“We do not know of any situation where a therapist subjected any student to improper treatment or abuse,” Hagen said in a statement. “All treatment provided to Vista students, including the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, was appropriate and in accordance with all applicable professional standards.”
The KSL Investigators checked with state regulators about inspections and licensing. The facility notified the Utah Department of Human Services of an allegation of sexual abuse by an employee in June 2020 and took required action to resolve the licensing rule violation, according to Mike McDonald, director of licensing at DHS.
“This severe crime appears to be an isolated incident at these programs,’ McDonald said in a statement.
And there is “no other violation or incident in their history that rose to a criminal level,” he said.
Those suing spent time at the Vista facilities at different points from 2003-2019 and say the months they spent there caused lasting harm. Four told KSL they still have panic attacks, nightmares and trouble trusting others. They’re suing to force changes, they said, with today’s teens in mind.
They’re alleging negligence, violations of federal anti-discrimination law and fraud. Their lawsuit, an update to the case first filed a year ago, calls for accountability for those “who have profited through the victimization of the vulnerable.”
Some families paid $50,000-$200,000 for the time their teens spent at the facilities.
At Vista, Jessie Homans, now 29 and living in Georgia, said no one told authorities about what happened to her at 16. The lawsuit states that she told employees that a man had sexually assaulted her on a plane heading to Utah.
“And not only was it never reported, I was punished for it,” she said. “I was treated as though I had seduced him.”
About five years later, in 2013, Britta Niederer arrived at Vista from North Carolina at 15, after trying to take their life several times.
“My parents were at their wit’s end,” Niederer said. “I had seen so many doctors.”
After attempting suicide and self-harm at Vista, the teenager was prohibited from speaking to the other teens, placed in a room monitored by two employees, and denied therapy sessions, the lawsuit says, but employees told Niederer’s family that it was the teen who was refusing therapy.
Since their time at the Vista facilities, Utah’s $400 million troubled teen industry has come under the spotlight.
The state is home to dozens of treatment facilities for teens designed to treat conditions from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and substance abuse. The residential programs offer therapy, time in the outdoors, and schoolwork to help kids get on the right track.
But allegations of abuse and mistreatment of children at certain centers have brought more scrutiny and added state oversight in the last two years.
Celebrity heiress Paris Hilton called for change in Utah last year, testifying in favor of a reform law and telling state lawmakers about her experience at a different facility in Utah.
The changes include more frequent inspections of treatment programs, limits on the use of restraints, and guaranteed weekly calls home, without employees listening in.
The state lawmaker who sponsored recent reforms, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, noted Utah is seen as the epicenter of the industry. He said it’s important the state lead out on reform, and he’s looking at further changes.
“I think there have been far too many problems,” he said, “and I think the reform is absolutely necessary at this point.”
Niederer said any programs mistreating teenagers should face consequences.
“I have nightmares almost every night. Quite honestly, I avoid sleep lot,” Niederer said. “Everybody was just manipulated and it was a sad story on all ends.”
Former Vista resident Rebecca Prolman, now 30 and living in San Diego, agreed.
“One of the reasons I became a therapist is to be the kind of therapist that I had needed at that time, instead of what I received,” she said.
Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at firstname.lastname@example.org or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.
If you have experienced sexual violence, you can access help and resources by calling Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-421-1100. You can also call the Rape Recovery Center Crisis Line at 801-467-7273 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for free, confidential counseling.
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