Paris Hilton backs California bill to reform 'troubled teen industry'

Paris Hilton, meets with a supporter after speaking at a Stop Institutional Child Abuse event, Wednesday, May 11, 2022 in Washington. Hilton is in Washington advocating efforts to improve protections of youth in residential programs and facilities. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Paris Hilton advocating in Washington, D.C., for legislation to regulate residential treatment programs for troubled teens. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

The celebrity hotel heiress once known for her high-profile nightclub appearances has turned her attention to a much more staid venue: the California state Capitol.

Paris Hilton is supporting Senate Bill 1043, authored by Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) and joint-authored by two Democratic lawmakers, which would require residential treatment facilities to report to parents and the state government when they use restraints or seclusion rooms in disciplining minors.

It's the latest move in what's become Hilton's political focal point in recent years as she's positioned herself as a voice for youth who have endured abuse at the hands of teen treatment centers. Hilton has traveled to Washington, D.C., and Utah to push for tougher regulations on residential treatment programs. On April 15 she is scheduled to testify in support of the new legislation in Sacramento.

“As a survivor of the ‘Troubled Teen Industry,’ I am proud to partner with Sen. Shannon Grove ... to bring much-needed transparency to California youth facilities," Hilton said in a statement.

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The bill aims to protect children and young adults housed in facilities licensed by the California Department of Social Services by mandating that the agency publish data on a public dashboard on its website reporting the use of restraint and seclusion rooms, including instances of serious injuries or death. It would also require notification of parents or guardians when restraints and seclusion rooms are used on minors.

The Department of Social Services said it does not comment on legislation.

California used to send foster youth with serious behavior problems to out-of-state treatment programs, but after numerous reports of abuse, a 2021 law barred these placements. The state has since created an alternative known as Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs but the use of seclusion rooms and restraints on minors still occurs, according to Grove's office.

Hilton, who is 43, has been outspoken about the mental and physical abuse she said she endured as a teenager as a resident for 11 months at Utah's Provo Canyon School, a boarding school and psychiatric youth treatment center. Provo Canyon was sold over two decades ago and, after Hilton went public with her story, declined to comment on any allegations about events that took place before new ownership.

Some youth are sent to these treatment programs by their parents; others are foster kids ordered to attend by the courts.

The so-called "troubled teen" industry dates back at least 50 years and refers to a network of programs that target teenagers struggling with issues including substance abuse, mental illness and problematic behavior. The programs typically cost in the same ballpark as college tuition, and despite having been at the center of many abuse and corruption scandals, the industry remains largely unregulated, according to the American Bar Assn.

Prompted by her experiences in residential treatment in the 1990s, Hilton has formed a nonprofit organization, released a documentary and written a memoir recounting her personal story of abuse. And she is advocating for the protection of minors in residential programs and facilities.

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In 2021, Hilton testified at the Utah state Capitol for a bill that required more government oversight of youth residential treatment centers and documentation when they use restraints on minors. The bill also prohibits using sedation or mechanical restraints without prior authorization in treatment centers. The bill was signed into law, affecting the state's 100 youth treatment centers, and has paved the path for more legislation.

The National Assn. of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, the country's largest member organization, supported the Utah bill.

"We strongly support the creation of laws that help protect the rights and safety of students who attend our programs," the group wrote in a letter that was read by Utah Sen. Todd Weiler.

Last year, Hilton was at the U.S. Capitol to advocate for the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, a federal bill to establish best practices and transparency in youth residential care programs.

“This issue is deeply personal for me," Hilton said at a Washington news conference introducing the bill. "From the ages of 16 to 18, I was sent to four troubled teen industry facilities. Each one was more horrific than the last. I witnessed and experienced sexual abuse from adult staff, as well as endured verbal and emotional abuse daily. ... What I went through will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.