Teen treatment: Advice for parents seeking residential treatment options

Mar 24, 2022, 9:10 PM | Updated: Jun 18, 2022, 8:50 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah’s $400 million troubled teen industry is facing renewed scrutiny as more than two dozen former residents allege mistreatment and abuse in a new lawsuit.   

The headlines are causing concern for families consumed by worry and trying to figure out which residential option, if any, is the right place for their kids, said state Sen. Mike McKell.  

The Spanish Fork Republican, who sponsored recent reforms to the industry, says his phone is constantly buzzing with messages and calls from parents who want to make sure their children receive help — not harm — at 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 enhance our transparency.”   

Anyone can search for a facility’s licensing history online, and the Department of Human Services is working on making more records available to the public on its website, a spokeswoman told KSL. And the state is gathering more details on the facilities now that a 2021 law requires more frequent inspections and heftier reporting requirements, among other changes.  

McKell would like to see those inspection results easily available in a state database publicly available online. That is not yet the case.  

In the meantime, the KSL Investigators spoke with the Youth Providers Association, a nonprofit that represents businesses in the teen treatment industry. Its executive director, Mariah Hurst, said while residential treatment is considered a last resort, it’s a critical resource for young people in crisis.   

Unannounced quarterly checks and other components 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 to families,” Hurst said. Still, a series of questions can help parents determine the best course of action for their kids.  

What do your state’s resources look like?  

Utah’s stabilization and mobile response services can help children, parents and caregivers craft safety plans and learn about resources, including steps they may want to take before considering residential treatment, Hurst said.  

“They can triage and give short-term support,” she added.  

Hurst notes that teens and their families – or anyone else with concerns – can use the SafeUT website and app to chat with a crisis worker or send in a tip if they’re worried someone’s being mistreated.  

How do they measure success?  

Numbers can be key, Hurst says.  

“Any program should be able to give very easy information on the data that they’re tracking,” she added. She recommends digging into the details on methods of treatment they use and asking whether their practices are based on research showing their approach is successful. Other good things to know: What kind of involvement will parents have during treatment, and what sort of support is available after the child leaves the facility?  

Does the facility work closely with the state?  

Some centers have contracts with Utah’s Department of Human Services to treat children who are already in the state’s custody or may be sometime soon. The state requires them to be accredited, subjecting them to close monitoring. Many contracting with the state also accept private clients. If a business does both, Hurst said, “they are already on the front end of best practices.”  

Are they accredited?  

Any residential center for teens must have a license to operate legally in Utah, but accreditation demonstrates an extra level of effort to serve kids as best they can and keep in line with top national standards, Hurst said. 

The process for accreditation is intensive and can take more than a year, Hurst said, with rigorous trainings and in-person evaluations. Reviewers may show up to visit the centers unannounced, and businesses reapplying to keep their good standing face more stringent reviews. Some of the criteria may not seem significant, Hurst said, “but overall, when you add all of these different elements together, they create a very safe program for the youth.” 

Three common entities are the Council on Accreditation, the Commission on the Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities and the Joint Commission. 

Are they part of a professional network? 

Hurst said it’s up to treatment centers to identify weak points and find ways to fix them so youth aren’t victimized. It’s something her organization’s members are talking about regularly, along with other ways to improve, she said.  

 “The providers that I represent, we want the system to be healthy and helpful,” Hurst added. “There has been some negative attention. But by and large, these programs are doing so much for these youth that have acute needs.”  

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

Correction: A prior version stated there is no publicly available database of inspections online. The state has not yet provided this resource, but a collaborative effort among journalists in Utah created this database.

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Teen treatment: Advice for parents seeking residential treatment options