Rooted in Silence
No other word but tragic can describe the death of a young girl at Maple Lake Academy. Maple Lake Academy is a residential treatment center in Utah that caters to teenagers with mental illnesses including autism, anxiety, depression, and learning disorders. Maple Lake Academy has two locations in the town of Spanish Fork, Utah (Spanish Fork is approximately 15 minutes away from Provo and an hour outside of Salt Lake City) and they have both a boys and girls campus. I will not comment on this particular incident due to the pending investigation; but according to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune written by Jessica Miller:
“After repeated requests from parents, the program took the client to be evaluated by a doctor,” the notice reads. “After the doctor visit, the client complained of worsening symptoms but was not returned for medical care.” The girl died early the next morning, according to the Office of Licensing.
At this time state regulators are requiring the facility to stop taking new clients and to ensure proper care is being given to current residents. It is still possible for the facility to lose its license pending both a police investigation and an investigation by child protective services. According to the Notice of Agency Action, Maple Lake Academy is currently under investigation for several violations including but not limited to: violations of client rights, provider code of conduct, failure to provide necessary medical care, etc. This tragic death is not Maple Lake Academy’s first interaction with state regulators. In 2020 the facility was required to take corrective action after a staff member had twisted the nipple of a young boy as “part of a game”. The staff member was given a warning and reminded of appropriate boundaries.
Maple Lake Academy is a part of the “Troubled Teen Industry.” Utah is the nation’s epicenter for teen treatment centers, with nearly 100 youth residential treatment centers and over 12,000 children from across the country being sent to these centers over the past five years. The Troubled Teen Industry is grossly under regulated. To put this into perspective, my gemstone suppliers have more accreditations than many of these programs. The Troubled Teen Industry is deeply rooted in child abuse, corporate greed, and has been protected by silence.
Allegations of child abuse in the industry go as far back as 2008 when the United States Government published the report, Residential Programs: Selected Cases of Death, Abuse, and Deceptive Marketing. According to the American Bar Association:
The report “identified thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which resulted in death, at residential programs across the country and in American-owned and American operated facilities abroad.” Despite these findings more than a decade ago, there is no federal regulation or oversight of these programs, nor are there consistent regulations among states.
The roots of the Troubled Teen Industry can be traced back to a rehabilitation program called Synanon. Synanon was established in 1958 by Charles Dederich who claimed to have been inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous, but in reality Synanon showed many characteristics of a cult. According to Refinery 29, the program used various problematic tactics which included isolation, sleep deprivation, and manual labor. “Treatment often involved something called The Game in which participants would berate, belittle, and humiliate whoever the group’s target was for the duration of the session in order to “heal” them, ostensibly from drug addiction. Some of these sessions turned violent.” Synanon was finally shut down in 1991, “but copycat programs have now proliferated across the country, negatively impacting a whole new generation of teens.”
Breaking Code Silence is a survivor led social movement whose mission is to raise awareness of the institutional child abuse and other problematic aspects embedded within the troubled teen industry. “The term “institutional child abuse” means – child abuse or neglect by a person who is an employee of a public or privately covered program; or institutional practices, policies, or conditions that are reasonably likely to result in child abuse or neglect.”
Breaking Code Silence has created a safe space for survivors to share their stories. All of these survivors' stories are deeply unsettling and may be triggering to some. Survivor stories contain detailed information of child abuse and neglect including but not limitted to cruel and unusual punishment, lack of or denial of medical treatment, overmedication, monitoring and limiting communication, restraints, use of seclusion as punishment, etc. The Salt Lake Tribune created a database that contains thousands of inspection reports and critical incident reports from residential treatment centers and wilderness programs in Utah for easy and free public access.
In May of 2016 the University of Utah published a research brief detailing the economic impacts of Utah’s “Family Choice Healthcare Interventions Industry” in 2015 alone. It is estimated that 90% of clientele are from out of state and the industry has created over 6,400 jobs, $269 million in earnings, $423 million in Utah gross domestic product, and over $22 million in state and local taxes. According as passage written by American Bar Association:
The “troubled teen” industry is a big business. It receives “an estimated $23 billion dollars of annual public funds to purportedly treat the behavioral and psychological needs of vulnerable youth.” Many residential facilities operate as for-profit organizations. One such for-profit facility, Sequel, has an annual revenue that “regularly tops $200 million; as of 2017, 90% of their revenue came from Medicaid, Medicare, and approximately 500 additional federal, state, and local programs. Programs pay Sequel as much as $800 per day for each child at a facility.”
In previous years the Troubled Teen Industry was able to thrive on survivor silence. Talking about mental health is still considered taboo by some which has hindered survivors from speaking out. In addition clients typically have limited access to the outside world and monitored communication with family members. Residents are also often labeled as “troubled” or “bad” making them unreliable narrators further protecting the exposure of institutional abuse embedded throughout these programs.
In recent years a few high profile survivors including Paris Hilton have come forward to share their stories. Paris Hilton opened up about her time at Provo Canyon School in her documentary This is Paris which was released on September 14, 2020. Paris Hilton and other survivors from the Breaking Code Silence Movement spoke in front of congress to assist in the passing of S.B. 127 which became effective on May 5, 2021. Testimony from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee in regards S.B. 127 can be viewed below.