Paris Hilton made an impassioned plea to state legislators at the NCSL Legislative Summit on Sunday, urging them to police the nation’s public and private foster care institutions, where as many as 200,000 adolescents are housed. Research has shown many children and teens in these facilities face mental, physical and sexual abuse and receive little or no appropriate care to address the traumatic events in their lives.
Hilton, now 41, knows this firsthand.
“What I experienced was one of the most degrading and traumatic experiences of my life,” Hilton, a media personality and entrepreneur, said. She decided to go public about it in her 2020 documentary, “This Is Paris,” and has since been working with states and Congress.
"What I experienced was one of the most degrading and traumatic experiences of my life." —Paris Hilton
Hilton says men from one program dragged her out of bed in the middle of the night in handcuffs when she was 16. She was shipped to a private Utah facility that houses so-called troubled teens when their parents can’t manage them or they are in the foster care system. She has said she was not allowed outside for 11 months, was forced to take drugs that made her numb and tired, and was locked alone in a bare room with no toilet for days. Her contact with family was restricted.
“Learning and participating in the legislative process is such a gift,” Hilton said. “It’s so liberating to put the rights I wasn’t afforded to use to protect the rights of others.”
Hilton appeared on a recorded video at the Youth and Young Adult Policy Summit organized by four of NCSL’s programs: Children and Families, Criminal and Civil Justice, Education, and Employment, Labor and Retirement. The program was supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Call for Federal Standards
Legislators and advocates for child welfare are calling for a national set of standards for these facilities, which receive an estimated $23 billion in public funds, and they say states must step in to govern them.
Some states have begun to address this largely unregulated industry in recent years. NCSL’s Health and Human Services Standing Committee today unanimously passed a resolution urging Congress to pass the bipartisan Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act. The resolution moves to NCSL’s Business Committee for a final vote tomorrow.
Sixto Cancel formed the group Think of Us after growing up in foster care and seeing his brother wind up in a group home until he was 18 with little support. His goal is to ensure that people who have experienced the system are consulted in finding solutions. Hilton is perhaps the highest-profile example of that, but Cancel works to give a platform to thousands of people who have gone through it.
To that end, Think of Us produced the recent report “Away From Home,” which surveyed people who had been in these institutions, some as young as 9.
“We wanted to know what are the values of these institutions, are they helping young people heal, are they doing harm?” Cancel said of the report, which was produced with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He noted one 12-year-old said of the institution where he stayed, “I was surrounded by nothing but pain and trauma.” That child reported that an 11-year-old friend at the facility died by suicide.
Cancel says research shows these live-in facilities are punitive and prison-like, are unfit for healthy child and adolescent development and shield youth from building relationships that would help them once they are outside of institutional care. What’s more, Black children disproportionately wind up in this care instead of foster homes.
Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin (D) says the federal minimum standards are important so that children in any state would be protected. Her goal for her state was to create “a system to focus on support, nurture and inclusivity,” she said. “Youth think they have to deserve to be cared for. We have to change that.”
She got a bill passed in 2016 to begin regulating the industry, whether it’s a group home, a wilderness program, a behavioral therapy program or even an academic boarding school.
Addressing Abuse Charges
In Oregon the programs cannot kidnap youth to bring them onto the grounds; they cannot use restraints, including chemical injections, which have been common. They must investigate charges of abuse and address what they find; they must follow rules on nutrition, child safety and youth rights. They must disclose instances of substantiated abuse every quarter.
Utah Sen. Mike McKell (R) says he got involved after a family member on staff at a group home was attacked by residents and he began to learn of problems these facilities have.
“In Utah, we have the most congregate care facilities” in the country, McKell said. “I learned our regulatory structure was very, very insufficient.”
Hilton was housed at Provo Canyon School, which still operates in Utah. She testified at state Senate hearings in 2021 on a bill McKell sponsored to prohibit the facilities from using “cruel, severe, unusual or unnecessary practice on a child” and restrict the use of strip searches and body-cavity searches, which Hilton said she endured routinely. The bill passed unanimously.
McKell’s bill restricted use of social isolation, banned conversion therapy and most uses of chemical restraints, and required that youth in congregate care facilities have communication with parents. The state also required inspections and funded eight positions.
Neither McKell nor Gelser Blouin consider their work done.
McKell says his next priority is to consider regulating the companies that transport youth to the facilities and setting limits on length of stay, citing examples of kids coming in at age 12 and staying until they age out of the system at 18.
“That is way too long,” he said. “I can’t find any medical experts who say that is appropriate.”
Gelser Blouin says these programs need careful regulation now and major changes going forward.
“We’re kind of trapped in this crisis response,” she said. “Always trying to figure out how to bail out the systems we have instead of upending them.”
“I have come to believe they might be doing more harm than good,” Cancel said. “We need to replace them.”
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor at NCSL.