On Monday, aughts reality star and heiress Paris Hilton testified in a Salt Lake City courtroom about the alleged abuse she witnessed and experienced first hand as a teen at a Utah boarding school for “troubled teens.”
The Associated Press reports that Hilton testified in support of a bill that would mandate stronger government oversight of youth residential treatment centers and require them to document their use of restraints on residents. Following the emotional testimonies of Hilton and three other survivors, the measure passed unanimously.
“I speak today on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of children currently in residential care facilities across the United States,” Hilton said before the Utah state Senate committee hearing. “For the past 20 years, I have had a recurring nightmare where I’m kidnapped in the middle of the night by two strangers, strip-searched, and locked in a facility. I wish I could tell you that this haunting nightmare was just a dream, but it is not.”
Hilton, now 39, attended Provo Canyon School for 11 months at age 17. The school boasts of its compassionate and professional approach to young people beset by emotional and behavioral issues, but Hilton says she was “verbally, mentally and physically abused on a daily basis” at the facility.”
“Without a diagnosis, I was forced to consume medication that made me feel numb and exhausted. I didn’t breathe fresh air or see the sunlight for 11 months,” Hilton said. “There was zero privacy — every time I would use the bathroom or take a shower — it was monitored. At 16 years old — as a child — I felt their piercing eyes staring at my naked body. I was just a kid and felt violated every single day.”
Hilton first went public with her allegations against Provo Canyon in the documentary This Is Paris, released in September 2020. Additional survivors of Provo Canyon have shared their own harrowing tales of abuse following the documentary, including tattoo artist Kat Von D; in an Instagram video, Kat described her stint at Provo Canyon as “the most traumatic six months of my life.”
In the accompanying caption, Kat Von D wrote, that she emerged with “major PTSD and other traumas due to the unregulated, unethical and abusive protocols of this ‘school’ — and cannot believe this place is STILL OPERATING.”
Since its founding 50 years ago, Provo Canyon has been the subject of several lawsuits, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The school has distanced itself from abuse allegations following deluge of media attention they received following Paris’s documentary. Since October 2020, the following message has sat on the front page of the school’s website: “Please note that PCS was sold by its previous ownership in August 2000. We therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time. We are committed to providing high-quality care to youth with special, and often complex, emotional, behavioral and psychiatric needs.”
There is also a link to a series of recent press releases. “While we acknowledge there are individuals over the many years who believe they were not helped by the program, we are heartened by the many stories former residents share about how their stay was a pivot point in improving – and in many cases, saving – their lives,” reads one. But Provo Canyon’s suggestion that new ownership ended a cycle of abuse falls flat, considering that the allegations have continued under current leadership.
From the Salt Lake Tribune:
Six women who went there between 2003 and 2017 told The Tribune similar stories of being overmedicated, restrained and punished for minor infractions while at the girls campuses in Springville and Orem.
Kayla Smith was 8 years old when her parents, in coordination with her California school district, sent her to Utah in 2010.
She’s 19 now, but she still feels a tension in her chest as she talks about her time there.
Smith recalled being strip-searched and touched by staff, an experience that was foggy to her because she had been medicated before she came. She was homesick her first night, and staff put her in an isolation room and locked her inside — which is against Utah regulatory rules, which says “timeout rooms” cannot be locked.
This bill alone is unlikely to end the cruelty that former attendees say is baked into the culture at Provo Canyon’s multiple campuses, but anything that may make an overzealous staffer hesitate before body slamming a child and injecting them with sedatives can’t hurt. As Hilton told reporters, “This bill is going to definitely help a lot of children but there’s obviously more work to do, and I’m not going to stop until change happens.”