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Troubled teen industry facilities in Utah had lax oversight. Investigative reporters uncovered rampant abuse.

December 14, 2022

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It started with a riot.

When upheaval ensued at the youth treatment facility in St. George, Utah in 2019, fifty police cars — including SWAT units — showed up. Twenty-five minors were injured, and a dozen were detained.

It was a high-profile event that put the facility in the public spotlight. Then, within a couple months, violence increased at the center. Several staff members were charged with child abuse, and the facility closed.

Salt Lake Tribune’s Jessica Miller, former KUER reporter David Fuchs, and Will Craft and Curtis Gilbert of American Public Media each knew there was more to the story – even though they’d never met.

Throughout Utah, tales had circulated for decades — in the news and through the grapevine — about abuse at troubled teen treatment facilities like the one in St. George.

But no one had done a deep dive to answer the question: how many of the rumors were true? How does the state of Utah regulate the centers, and what does that mean for the teens treated there?

Crowdfunding and collaboration

Public records formed a critical foundation for this story, but obtaining them was a challenge. And that’s what spurred an innovative – and award-winning – collaboration.

It all started with Miller’s quest to gather a huge pile of government documents that could explain how facilities were licensed and regulated.

When she asked for the documents, Utah gave her a hefty price tag of several thousand dollars. It wasn’t feasible for her newsroom, which had just transitioned into nonprofit status.

Then she got an idea: “What if we just crowdfund?”

The proposal started as a bit of a joke, she said. But then when the Tribune followed through, crowdfunders raised almost $12,000 in a day.

Then the document dump arrived, and Miller was left with around 13,000 pages of documents. She knew it would be a nearly impossible task to go through them on her own.

At the same time, American Public Media reporter Gilbert was on a similar mission to learn more about one Utah company’s treatment facilities. He had previously reported on a private juvenile correctional facility in Minnesota, which was later shut down. Then the kids who were previously sent there were now going out of state.

Many were going to centers owned by a company called Sequel, which has facilities in Utah.

Looking for answers, Gilbert “assembled a small army of public radio reporters in various states to help him with reporting and records requests,” Fuchs said.

Then, American Public Media approached the Salt Lake Tribune asking if they wanted to join forces for a podcast on the troubled teen industry. Knowing that The Salt Lake Tribune had just received a dump of documents — thanks to crowdfunders — APM asked the paper if they wanted in on the podcast.

Then Fuchs came into the fold: wanting to work with a reporter on the ground near the site of the St. George riot, APM contacted its local southern Utah radio station, KUER, where Fuchs was working at the time.

Although the facilities reporters investigated were based in Utah, this wasn’t a state story, but a national one. The kids in Utah’s treatment facilities aren’t just from there — they’re from everywhere else in the country.

“This topic in particular, is a topic that touches everyone,” Miller said.

Reporters also noticed that while other states have troubled teen facilities, Utah had significantly more.

The team wanted to go deeper than they normally could with traditional print or radio stories, and they wanted to do it for a national audience. For the depth they wanted, a podcast was the best option.

“In what other format are you going to get people to sit down and listen to you for three and a half hours?” Fuchs said.

Technical skills

Analyzing the public records required Craft, the data reporter, to write some computer code to extract data from them. Many of the regulatory documents related to facility investigations were checklists. To understand inspection and compliance trends for Utah’s youth residential treatment facilities over a period of five years, Craft scanned and scraped the documents to create a spreadsheet he could analyze.

Craft found that, over a period of five years, 95% of the boxes were checked. Essentially, all of the Utah teen residential treatment facilities were only found to have violated 5% of compliance standards over a period of five years.

That didn’t match up with the confirmed reports of abuse and violence that journalists found.

Through their reporting, they found it didn’t match up with former residents’ experiences, either.

Listen to the full podcast series here.

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