In The Problematic ‘Troubled Teen’ Industry, All Roads Lead to Utah

Thousands of children make the journey against their will to residential ‘troubled teen’ treatment programs in Utah. Not all will return, and those who do call themselves ‘survivors.’ 

“These programs are like whack-a-mole. When one gets shut down, a new one opens up under a different name,” says Katherine Kubler, the documentarian behind the 2024 Netflix series The Program who set out to uncover the lies and abuse of the residential treatment center (RTC) she survived as a teen—the Academy at Ivy Ridge in Ogdensburg, New York. Kubler followed the money and chain of abuse to Utah and to the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP). While most WWASP programs have since shuttered, some who worked there went on to start spin-off organizations with nearly identical programs. (The Program traces connections to Soulegria and Three Points Center in Hurricane, Utah.) The “troubled teen” industry (TTI) is a tangled, incestuous network of companies, programs and trade groups, and pulling on any thread in that network will often lead you to Utah. As Kubler puts it, “Utah is the epicenter of the ‘troubled teen’ industry.”

Meg Appelgate, Unsilenced CEO, released her memoir on her childhood experience in the ‘troubled teen’ industry, Becoming Unsilenced.

Meg Appelgate is the co-founder and CEO of Unsilenced. This non-profit organization raises awareness of the abuse in the industry and offers support to TTI program survivors by linking them to trauma-informed mental health professionals and legal services. “We’re dedicated to forcing transparency into this industry because, let’s face it, not only does it not exist, but it’s discouraged,” says Appelgate. Unsilenced keeps an archive of documents and testimonies related to TTI programs, tracing them through rebrandings and reorganizations. “It’s a constant shift from one LLC to another, and it’s extremely hard to track,” says Appelgate, but lives are at stake. 

This year, North Carolina authorities shut down the Trails Carolina wilderness program after a 12-year-old died during his first night there. Trails Carolina is owned by Family Health & Wellness, which also runs at least seven programs in Utah. In 2022, 14-year-old Sofia Soto died at Maple Lake Academy in Spanish Fork as a result of staff negligence, her parents claimed in a lawsuit. That same year, staff at Diamond Ranch Academy, a wilderness program in Hurricane, refused medical treatment for 17-year-old Taylor Goodridge, and she died of sepsis from a treatable infection, according to her parents’ lawsuit. While Maple Lake Academy is still operating, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) did not renew Diamond Ranch Academy’s license. A similar program under a different name is already trying to take its place. The “new” entity, RAFA Academy, is seeking a license to operate with some of the same staff and in the same facility as Diamond Ranch.

Both Utah deaths came after a 2021 law passed with the help of Paris Hilton. Hilton herself is a survivor of Provo Canyon School and advocated for more TTI regulations and oversight. The sponsor of S.B. 127, Utah State Senator Mike McKell who appeared in The Program, spoke on the need for federal regulation and expressed concern that shutdown facilities can start up again and “bad employees bounce around.” When asked if there has been substantial change since S.B. 127 took effect, Appelgate says, “If you’re looking at the quality of treatment of youth in Utah facilities, my opinion would be no,” but she says there is more information available from inspections and more reporting from DHHS to the Office of Licensing.

Katherine Kubler in  The Program. Image courtesy of Netflix.

The Disability Law Center released a scathing report last year based on a year-long investigation. “Time and time again, facilities that mistreat vulnerable residents and fail to provide them with appropriate treatment…continue to operate,” the report reads. “It is imperative that the state of Utah act now.” It’s an old refrain. As far back      as 2007, a Government Office of Accountability investigation found thousands of allegations of abuse, including deaths, at residential treatment programs. 

A 2022 investigation by American Public Media found more children are sent to programs in Utah than to any other state. Utah is home to a high number of TTI facilities partly because minors have fewer rights here. Their willing participation in a treatment plan is not required, as in some other states. “If you look at how most of these youth are coming to these facilities, such as being abducted in the middle of the night,” says Appelgate. “Obviously, there’s a lot of mistrust and a lot of trauma…If there is no trust, then there really can’t be an effective therapeutic relationship.” Many of these programs still employ level-based systems that require strict obedience to earn even basic privileges, such as those WWASP used, as seen in The Program. “They are operating on antiquated belief systems that are largely based on behavior modification and other ‘tough love’ sort of mentalities,” she says. Analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts found similar “scared straight” programs to be unproductive in terms of per-participant cost and preventing participants’ future criminal activity. The same analysis observed the early success of a Utah policy that, in part, intended to “keep youth out of costly residential placements.” But, youth from other states are still forced into Utah programs. 

From Netflix’s The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping. Image courtesy of Netflix.

While TTI programs are often one-size-fits-all, the children sent to programs are not. Some “troubled teens” are privately placed by their parents or families for reasons from mental health and developmental challenges to drug use to gender identity. Some are sent from foster care, juvenile justice systems, school districts, refugee resettlement agencies or even mental health providers—paid for by taxpayer dollars. “The only people I’ve ever seen turned away from a program are those who can’t pay for it,” says Appelgate. 

A 2024 lawsuit filed by 18-year-old Finn Richardson claims Elevations RTC in Syracuse (owned by Family Help & Wellness) cared more about receiving money from his father than it cared about Richardson’s well-being. When Richardson told his Elevations therapist that his father sexually abused him and sent him away as a punishment for being gay, Elevations failed to report the abuse. 

A court-appointed psychiatric evaluation later determined that Richardson did not need treatment and more time at Elevations would be “detrimental to his psychological, emotional, social and academic well-being.” Richardson said at a press conference that he filed the lawsuit as a way to stand up for others in similar situations. “I said, ‘no more.’ I can’t   keep watching this happen to myself  and my friends.”

“It’s important for everyone to know that it’s not just parents of troubled teens who need to focus on this health crisis. It’s every single person,” says Appelgate, and awareness is key to spreading that understanding. “The sad fact is that there are far more poor and traumatic experiences coming out of these facilities.” says Appelgate. “They cause these youth to change how they view themselves.” After the program, she says, they call themselves “survivors.”  

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Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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