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SALT LAKE CITY — Sitting in front of a panel of Utah lawmakers on Monday, Paris Hilton said she's had the same nightmare for the past 20 years — a nightmare in which she's "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 is just a dream," the celebrity said. "But it's not."
Hilton and other "survivors of the troubled teen industry" gave chilling and at-times graphic testimony, urging support for a bill to place more regulations on facilities for troubled teens.
Hilton said when she was 16, two "transporters" woke her up "in the middle of the night with handcuffs. They asked me if I wanted to go the easy way or the hard way. They carried me out of my home as I screamed at the top of my lungs for my parents' help. I was taken to the airport and separated from everything and everyone I knew and loved."
She said she had no idea where they were taking her until they landed.
"This was my introduction to the state of Utah," Hilton said, "but not the troubled teen industry."
Hilton went on to describe how Provo Canyon School was her third facility for troubled youths, where she said she experienced "unconstitutional, degrading and terrifying" abuse from staff who forced her to take medication that made her feel "numb and exhausted," watched her go to the bathroom and shower and threw her into a "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," Hilton said, calling the staff there "evil and sadistic and seemed to enjoy their power in being able to abuse children."
Hilton said children in Provo Canyon School were "restrained, thrown into walls, strangled, and sexually abused regularly." She said she couldn't report it because "all communication with my family was being monitored and censored."
"And what is disgusting," Hilton said, "is the program doesn't just censor communication with family, but also with the entire outside world so there was no way we could call for help."
Provo Canyon School sent a statement to the Deseret News in August saying the school originally opened in 1971 but was sold by its previous owner in the year 2000.
"We therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to this time," the school's statement said, calling the school "an intensive, psychiatric residential treatment center for youth between the ages of 8 and 18 that have special, and often complex, mental health and emotional needs."
"We offer innovative, evidence-based therapeutic interventions, academic instruction and life-skills training tailored to the needs of each of our students," the statement continued. "Leadership and staff are highly committed to providing effective treatment, compassionate care and a nurturing environment for the students and families we serve."
Today, Hilton said Provo Canyon School "excuses their abusive behavior by saying they are now owned by a new company," Universal Health Services.
"UHS," Hilton said, "you can't silence me."
Even though Provo Canyon School was sold to new ownership in the year 2000, after Hilton's stay there in the 1990s, she said through "extensive research, we found out that while this facility was indeed sold after my time, the practices used and the staff employed remained and remain today the same."
She said one staff member would "brag to other students that she was the one that broke Paris Hilton. This woman was employed by UHS for 20 years. She was let go this October, only after my documentary premiered."
"I tell my story not so that anyone feels bad for me," Hilton said. "But to shine a light on the reality of what happened then, and is still happening now."
Her testimony in front of Utah's Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee comes after she talked about the abuse she says she suffered at the Provo Canyon School in her documentary "This Is Paris" released last year.
Ahead of the documentary's release, Hilton told People magazine her parents sent her to a series of boarding schools claiming to focus on behavioral and mental development after they became fed up with her "sneaking out and going to clubs and parties" while the family lived at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.
"I am proof that money doesn't protect against abuse," Hilton told Utah lawmakers. "The state of Utah must monitor the companies taking exorbitant amounts of money from desperate people and taxpayers. People are profiting off of the abuse of children. This is not right. This is so wrong."
Even though "Utah is supposedly built on family values," Hilton said, the "neglect" by the state failing to regulate these facilities has "brought us here today."
The weight of Hilton's and others testimony baffled lawmakers, leaving some incredulous as to how such "disgusting" abuse of children had persisted for decades inside these youth facilities without accountability. Without debate, the committee voted unanimously to endorse the bill and forward it to the full Senate for consideration.
I am proof that money doesn't protect against abuse. The state of Utah must monitor the companies taking exorbitant amounts of money from desperate people and taxpayers. People are profiting off of the abuse of children. This is not right. This is so wrong.
–Paris Hilton in testimony to Utah lawmakers
SB127, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, seeks to put more government oversight on Utah's youth residential treatment centers. It would require the treatment centers to document instances of physical restraints and involuntary confinement and submit monthly reports to the Utah Office of Licensing. It would also ban chemical sedation and mechanical restraints unless authorized.
Hilton said when she was first admitted to Provo Canyon School, she was given a number.
"I was no longer Paris. I was only number 127," she said.
McKell, in his closing remarks to lawmakers before turning time over to them for a vote, said his bill would give new meaning to that number.
"Today, we're going to reshape the industry," he said. "We're going to put in guardrails with SB127."
But some lawmakers said the bill should be stronger.
Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, thanked Hilton for "shining a light" on the issue.
"We're going to take care of this," he pledged, but he questioned if SB127 would go far enough. "I don't know. Seems like we have more work to do."
"We need to start somewhere," said an emotional Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City. "But it's not enough. We are so behind. Of all the things we do to protect children ... And this is happening in front of us and we're not doing enough, It's really embarrassing. I'm so sorry."
"I have so, so many questions," Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said, telling of a video he watched of a young man "getting knocked out of his chair violently" in one of these facilities. "All of this physical abuse ... how have there never been criminal charges?"
Thatcher floated ideas to give it more teeth, including regulations around the transporters who bring teens into the facilities. He also urged McKell to adopt an immediate effective date, which McKell said he would do.
A Utah man, Jeff Netto, who is now a business owner in Draper, said he was 13 when he was first admitted into a series of youth centers. In one of them, called Heritage Schools near Provo Canyon School, he said he was tied to a bed multiple times with a "five-point restraint system." His first time, he said, it was for 24 hours. The next time was for three days. The next time: seven days. The fourth time was, again, seven days. And the last time, he said, was for two days.
"You weren't allowed to go to the bathroom," Netto said, his voice straining as he held back tears, noting the bed had "plastic sheets." He said he was drugged at times with Thorazine, an antipsychotic used for schizophrenia. He said he wasn't diagnosed with schizophrenia, but attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Netto said he was also thrown in solitary confinement behind metal doors for days on end for "back talking" or fighting with other students. He said the longest time he was in solitary confinement as a 13-year-old was two months.
He said it depended on the staff member, but some would "come into your room and beat the crap out of you." And the whole time, he said, his parents never knew. He said there are no records of any incidents. He was there for 10 months. He said his parents paid $60,000 for his time there.
"I'm not here to tell you guys how to do your job," Netto said to the committee. "How to regulate this. What to do. But I will tell you as a local Utah boy, this happened. And this happened to hundreds of us."
The abuse took place 29 years ago, but Netto has friends from the facilities who are still suffering from their time there.
"I survived, but I don't know anybody else who has from the place I went," he said, telling of how everyone is now homeless, others are in prison, others are in a mental institution.
"I have nothing to gain by being here. I didn't want this exposed. I didn't want to tell anybody this stuff," he said as he held back tears, explaining that after Hilton first came to Utah to demand change, his parents started asking questions.
"It's happening in this state," he said. "This ain't Utah. ... This isn't how we treat our kids."
Hilton, in an interview with reporters after the committee's vote, said she was "thrilled" and "proud," thanking Utah lawmakers.
"This is really going to make such a huge difference in children's lives," she said.
McKell said he expects his bill to be approved by the full Senate, the Utah House, and be signed by Gov. Spencer Cox. He doubted the bill would have the same amount of wide support without Hilton.
"This is something we should have resolved as a state a long time ago," McKell said, noting he has a family member who was "hurt really bad in one of these facilities."
Hilton said she was "blown away" by all the support for the bill, but that her fight isn't over.
"This is just the first step," she said, noting she's lobbying for regulations to span nationwide. "There is obviously more work to do and I'm not going to stop until change happens."
Hilton said she decided to come out with her story last year because she "couldn't sleep at night knowing" other children were suffering.
"Now that we have the entire world looking upon this there's no way that they're going to get away with this anymore," she said. "A child should not go into a place and come out with more issues than what they came in with."