SALT LAKE CITY — The celebrity Paris Hilton made a surprise appearance at the Utah State Legislature to testify in favor of a bill that regulates so-called "troubled teen" schools.
Hilton is speaking in favor of Senate Bill 127, which would put the treatment centers that deal with youth who are facing addiction, behavioral and other issues under more government oversight, including regular reports to the state on how they utilize restraints.
In emotional testimony on Monday before the Senate Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee, Hilton described being taken from her home in the middle of the night and sent to youth treatment facilities, where she was abused and sometimes kept in solitary confinement.
"That small room covered in scratch marks and smeared blood with no bathroom is one of the most vivid and traumatizing memories I’ve ever experienced in my entire life," she said. "Children were restrained, hit, thrown into walls, strangled and sexually abused regularly at Provo."
Hilton, who has been a model, reality TV star and singer, has been outspoken about her experience at the Provo Canyon School, where she alleges she was abused in the 1990s. Hilton has repeatedly called for the school to be closed, including backing an online petition. The school's new owners have said they took over the facility in 2000 and cannot speak to her experiences there.
She lent her celebrity status to shutting down so-called "troubled teen" schools, arguing that they are abusive to children whose parents often spend thousands of dollars to get them treatment.
"I am proof that money doesn’t protect against abuse," Hilton said.
.@ParisHilton describes being taken from her home and flown to Utah in the middle of the night.
— Ben Winslow (@BenWinslow) February 8, 2021
Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is running the bill that would allow Utah's Department of Human Services to conduct surprise inspections, require the facilities to report any time they restrain a child or use a chemical constraint, and put more government oversight of them. Right now, Utah law does not allow for any kind of spot inspections, which Hilton said allowed them to cover up abuses.
No one spoke against the bill. Some who also attended youth treatment centers described similar abuse.
"This same treatment model is used across the state right at this moment," said Caroline Lorson of the group "Breaking Code Silence," which advocates against these schools.
Jeff Netto said he experienced similar abuse at age 13 in a youth treatment center.
"This ain’t Utah," he cried. "That’s not how Utah acts, that’s not how we treat our kids."
Senators were stunned by what they heard.
"Frankly, we failed to protect you," Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said to the witnesses. "And I’m sorry about that."
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, questioned if the bill went far enough. Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, asked if they should ban these facilities outright.
The bill passed out of the committee unanimously and now goes to the full Utah State Senate for a vote.
Sen. McKell said a national group that represents some treatment centers said it supported more oversight. After the hearing, Sen. McKell praised Hilton for lending her celebrity status to bringing attention to the problem in Utah.
"I appreciate she’s using her voice in a meaningful way," he told reporters.
Hilton said she was pleased to see the bill pass out of committee, but insisted this was just a start.
"This bill is definitely going to help a lot of children, but there’s obviously more work to do and I’m not going to stop until change happens," she told reporters.