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WASHINGTON — Standing in front of the U.S. Capitol, Paris Hilton described the "torture" she endured at the Provo Canyon School, before she urged leaders in Washington to act on the billion-dollar troubled teen industry that has a foothold in Utah.
The celebrity entrepreneur was in Washington, D.C., this week meeting with members of Congress to promote troubled teen treatment reform at the national level, and on Wednesday told leaders in the Senate and House as well as President Joe Biden, that "the next generation of America is counting on you. We will not give up."
The bill, which was later passed unanimously, prevented treatment centers from using "cruel, severe, unusual, or unnecessary practice on a child" including strip searches or a body cavity search — routine exams for Hilton at the Provo Canyon School, she said.
Her now well-documented time at the Utah County treatment center led to years of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, Hilton said. She recalled some of those incidents on Wednesday — but other memories are still too hard to verbalize.
"It's still so difficult for me to speak about all the extremely painful, physical, emotional and even sexual abuse out loud. I'm not ready to express verbally," she said, pointing to a USA Today editorial published Wednesday where she details, for the first time, sexual abuse committed by staff.
At just 16 years old, she was given medication that "made me feel numb and helpless."
When she questioned why she was given the sedatives, "men much larger than me grabbed me by the arms, dragged me down the hall and pushed me into a four-by-four dirty cement room," she said. "... I can't tell you exactly how long I stayed in that room because there were no windows or clocks."
Standing alongside Hilton Wednesday was SB127's sponsor, Utah state Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork.
Calling the bill "the first significant reform in Utah in 15 years," the Utah Republican said it's a start, but the federal government should also act. More oversight is needed to ensure parents are not being misled, and that Medicaid and Title IX funds are actually going toward proven and effective treatment.
Interstate transport is another gap that Washington can fill, McKell said, noting that SB127 does nothing to prevent parents from being convinced to send their kids to a different state where the same guardrails aren't in place.
"It's not often you see a Republican state senator asking the federal government for additional involvement," he said, "... the federal government needs to regulate interstate transport because kids are being traumatically taken in the middle of the night."
McKell used the example of a 16-year-old girl from Oregon who, like Hilton, was taken to Provo Canyon School where she was isolated, physically restrained and sedated.
Speaking after McKell was Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, who has also pushed for industry reform. The case of the girl at Provo Canyon School, she said, underscored the need for national reform.
"Once they crossed the state line of Oregon, those protections no longer existed for them," she said, calling on Congress to "close these grey areas, close these loopholes."