Drugs, Solitary confinement, torture and abuse

Parents are often misled about a child’s troubled behavior and can be coerced into believing or otherwise convinced that putting the child into a psychiatric or behavioral facility is the right thing to do.  The advice comes with a false assurance of “help,” but neglects to mention the potential harm the child or teen can be subjected to. Whether through punitive actions such as solitary confinement and seclusion rooms or torturous “treatments,” including debilitating drugs, behavioral modification or electric shock and chemical or physical restraints, parents should know of the risks to their child. Too many have found out too late.

First, many children and teens are forced into psychiatric-behavioral programs based on their being labeled with “disorders”—ADHD, Conduct Disorder, Disruptive Behavior Disorders, etc.—from the American Psychiatric Association’s “billing bible,” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM). Experts criticize DSM because it pathologizes childhood and teen behavior as a medical illness. “Troublesome behavior” can then be drugged into submission, creating even more dangers to the child. A University of Birmingham study found, “It detracts from considerations of what is best, educationally, for individual children. And it encourages a reliance on definitions of mental disorder to account for childhood normality or abnormality.”

The drugs prescribed to teens in these facilities can induce aggressive and violent behavior that can lead to them being physically restrained or dragged to a seclusion room.  Restraint use can be deadly and children as young as seven have died.  But, as has been documented in the multi-billion-dollar “troubled teen” behavioral industry, there are also restraint injuries, including nasal fractures and broken arms. Teens have also been terrifyingly body slammed against hospital walls. There are sexual assaults by both staff and fellow patients with known histories of sexual assault. And teen suicides that could have been prevented with proper staff monitoring; and much, much more.

In the compelling Paris Hilton documentary, This is Paris,  Hilton exposes how she was assaulted and traumatized in one of these behavioral facilities, Provo Canyon behavioral “school” in Utah at the age of 16.  Hilton describes the 11 months she spent there in 1999,  and describes how she was forced to take psychotropic drugs, was placed in solitary confinement and beaten.  She has now launched a national campaign to prevent other children from being abused in such facilities, and helped launch a petition with the group #BreakingCodeSilence, calling for Provo Canyon to be closed.

Provo Canyon used to be owned by the Charter Behavioral Hospital chain, in which hundreds of cases of abuse were found. In 1999, 60 Minutes II produced an exposé on this, called “Unsafe Haven,” helping lead to Charter’s closure. Charter had unsuccessfully attempted to stop the CBS telecast of hidden-camera footage 60 Minutes obtained that showed dangerous conditions and falsified records, including changing a patient diagnosis to capture more insurance rebates.  Sixteen-year-old Tristan Sovern died in Charter Greensboro in North Carolina in 1998 after he was placed in restraints as “punishment” for leaving a group-therapy session. In response to his screams of, “You’re choking me…I can’t breathe,” a towel was shoved over Tristan’s mouth.

From the patient’s perspective, if they don’t die, they certainly never forget a restraint experience. In a statement for a California court case related to restraints, Ron Morrison, a registered psychiatric nurse, said, “...an individual who is restrained feels vulnerable, inadequate, humiliated and unprotected. This may result in mental deterioration and exaggerated resentment or contempt for those responsible for the restraint procedure, and may actually aggravate a potentially violent situation, or create the potential for continued violence in the future.”

Following Department of Justice and Health and Human Services investigations, Charter agreed to pay $7 million to settle allegations of overcharging Medicare and other federal programs, and in 2000 the company filed for bankruptcy.  

Eight years earlier, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, then chairwoman of the House of Representatives Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, had delivered a scathing rebuke of the “unethical and disturbing practices” discovered in for-profit teen behavioral facilities. She said even then that “thousands of adolescents, children, and adults have been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment they didn’t need…that patients are kept against their will until their health insurance benefits run out...[and] that bonuses are paid to hospital employees, including psychiatrists, for keeping the hospital beds filled.” It was “big business,” she said.

That big business expanded when in August 2000, the behavioral hospital chain owned by Universal Health Services (UHS) acquired Provo Canyon and about 11 other Charter psychiatric facilities. Like many of these teen behavioral facilities that still exist, there are company platitudes, of how it is “committed to providing high-quality care to youth.” While UHS distanced itself from Paris Hilton’s allegations from 1999, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that there have been 341 investigations into Provo by the Utah Department of Licensing in the last five years,” with 27 of those investigations substantiated.  

Don’t expect the system to be properly inspect facilities or regulated them to protect your child.  

Often government inspections allow the facility to propose a “plan of correction,” setting out actions they will do to correct the abuses found. Or they may pay a substantial fine to the government or even settle lawsuits, but all without admitting liability.  

The Dallas Morning News, which conducted its own investigation into UHS, concluded, serious safety problems have plagued dozens of UHS’ hospitals and the violations were “so egregious that the hospitals faced expulsion from Medicare and Medicaid programs….” Most of the hospitals came up with correction plans to avoid expulsion. David Wright, deputy regional administrator in Dallas for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) told The Dallas Morning News that “patient complaints against the company aren’t just isolated to one region, but extend across the country.”

Abused in the “Troubled Teen Industry” can continue unabated, unless parents are better informed and effective official action is taken.

It was the restraint deaths and abuse of children in Charter and the apparent parallel to those found in UHS facilities that first raised the alarm bell about UHS, starting with its CHAD Youth Enhancement Center in Tennessee.

2005: A Philadelphia child-care investigator learned that a staff member of CHAD had been fired after he allegedly slammed a boy to the floor so hard the child fouled himself. In September, 14-year-old Linda Harris, an African American girl, collapsed at the CHAD center and died of a heart attack while being escorted to a "time-out" room. She died of heart failure.
2006: A boy was sent to an emergency room for cuts sustained in a restraint at CHAD. In another case, staff broke the left arm of a 16-year-old boy during a restraint. Later that year, CHAD told regulators another teenage resident was "taken to the floor" in a restraint that required four stitches for cuts on the lips. In May, Edith Ruland pulled her son, Dennis, 10, out of CHAD after she found numerous bruises on him, which the boy said staff had inflicted in a restraint hold.
2007: 17-year-old, Omega Leach, died after CHAD staff pushed him face-down to the floor, apparently cutting off his air, investigators said. According to an autopsy, the youth had "multiple superficial blunt force injuries" to his body as well as injuries to his neck muscles. He also sustained scrapes and bruises to both shoulders as well as a bruise under his left eye. Omega Leach's family subsequently sued UHS. In 2010, UHS settled with the family for $10.5 million.

Parents need to fully apprise themselves of the number of investigations, Health and Human Services (HHS) inspections, lawsuits and patient/family complaints against a behavioral facility they may be referred to.  UHS is but one of the chains that profit from locking up teens and “treating” them.  There are others such as, but not limited to, Acadia Healthcare; Sequel Youth and Family Services, which has innocuous sounding “academies” for youths; Strategic Behavioral Health and many more.  

A Time Line of psychiatric abuses committed against children and teens at UHS (at the end of this article) supports the allegations being made and the need for places such as Provo Canyon to be shut down.

2012-13: UHS’s Milton Girls’ Juvenile Residential facility in Florida came under scrutiny, when the facility’s supervisor was charged and convicted of felony child abuse, involving a 15-year-old girl she brutally attacked. Surveillance videos showed her appearing to slam the teen into a cement wall, throw her to the ground, and then pinned her down for 20 minutes. The video “seriously contradicts its description to us by officials representing the facility,” said Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Secretary Wansley Walters in a statement. “Facilities being monitored is a systemic problem,” said David Utter, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Then followed a mental health technician who was charged, convicted and jailed for 25 years for the sexual abuse of residents.
2014: Bruce Maxwell, an attorney who filed lawsuits over the abuse of emotionally disturbed and autistic deaf children at UHS’s National Dead Academy (NDA), a psychiatric facility for the deaf, said: “My hope is that the NDA is shut down…This kind of conduct should not be tolerated.”
2015: Rock River Academy & Residential Center, a residential treatment center in Illinois for adolescent girls with emotional problems, came under scrutiny when Rockford Police Department fielded more than 700 reports “concerning victimization of girls…including rape, aggravated battery and sodomy.” One teen’s attorney noted,Once we started digging into it, we just saw how bad their history is over there.”
2017: A 13-year-old girl was raped at UHS’s Timberlawn behavioral hospital in Texas The girl’s father told the Dallas Morning News, “This can’t happen to anyone else. The place needs to be shut down.”  
2019: Shadow Mountain behavioral health in Tulsa, Oklahoma, closed, after health authorities investigated it when children as young as five were separated from their parents and held in dangerous situations. Allegations ranged from medication errors to incidents of sexual misconduct. Internal surveillance videos showed children being repeatedly physically restrained, including a 9-year-old boy that a mental health technician grabbed by the neck, pushed against a wall, then slammed to the ground.

All five facilities closed amid government agency investigations but there the accountability rested. (“…but there the accountability rested” The meaning of this is not clear.) The abuses continued.  

  • September 2020: A lawsuit was filed against yet another UHS psych facility, The BridgeWay in North Little Rock, Arkansas,  behavioral health hospital, by a former patient who over a patient allegedly having been being sexually assaulted by another patient while she was receiving treatment there. In a four-page civil complaint filed, the woman's attorney, David Couch, wrote that the hospital exhibited “conscious and reckless disregard for the health and safety” of its patient.

Sexual Abuse “Within Industry Norm.”

Parents should be aware of the culture of abuse that is excused in behavioral facilities and teen “boot camps” or “wilderness camp programs.” In response to the outcry over the alleged teen rape at Timberlawn and other sexual assault allegations, the facility’s then- hospital chief executive, stated: “We believe our rate of serious incidents associated with the patient population treated at Timberlawn is within industry norm.”

Know Your Rights

A 1998 Hartford Courant series exposing teen restraint deaths in Charter and other behavioral facilities prompted action at the time. In 1999, federal regulations were passed to increase accountability for make psychiatric restraint deaths more accountable but, between 1999 and 2002, at least nine more children and teens who died from suffocation or cardiac arrest during violent restraint procedures. Based on ongoing abuses and restraint deaths being reported, regulations have been to no avail.  Parents need to know this and insist on vital protections.

In 2006 the U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) revised a notice of patient rights, including for the use of seclusion and restraints for behavior management. To remain eligible for Medicare participation, a hospital has to meet certain requirements, including mandatory death reporting.

Consumer advocacy groups argued for more stringent expectations for the care of children, citing special hazards and concerns that arise when children and adolescents are restrained.

  • §482.13 “Condition of participation: Patient’s rights e) “Standard: Restraint or seclusion” is supposed to ensure that all patients have the right to be free from physical or mental abuse, and corporal punishment. All patients have the right to be free from restraint or seclusion, of any form, imposed as a means of coercion, discipline, convenience, or retaliation by staff. [Emphasis stated.] Restraint or seclusion may only be imposed to ensure the immediate physical safety of the patient, a staff member, or others and must be discontinued at the earliest possible time.
  • Further, Point (5): “The use of restraint or seclusion must be in accordance with the order of a physician or other licensed independent practitioner who is responsible for the care of the patient as specified under §482.12(c) and authorized to order restraint or seclusion by hospital policy in accordance with State law.”
Restraint use continues to be used as punishment, for staff retaliation, and, “assault and battery” in some cases. But clearly, no “physician or other licensed independent practitioner” approving a restraint resulting in death, appears to have been called to account.  

If a parent finds their child has been restrained, ask for a copy of the physician’s order and report both the doctor and facility if this was violated.  Make the complaint to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice and local police. Call for prosecution and hospital closure, as necessary.

The entire system needs an overhaul—from diagnosis to treatment to outcomes.

No restraint should be used on a child or teen.  The teen behavioral-treatment industry needs oversight and criminal and financial accountability.


The following is but a small example of cases of children alleged to have been abused in UHS-owned psychiatric facilities. As children and teens can be too scared to speak out or are silenced when forced into such abusive hospitals and “schools,” the problem is likely far greater than is being reported.

  •  A mother took her 11-year-old son to a UHS behavioral facility that detained her son without her consent. As WFAA News detailed: “[T]he door locks behind you. You’re told you can’t leave. Stripped of your clothes, given a new bed. You have no idea when you’ll see your family again.” The facility billed his mother's insurance company more than $11,000 for the unwanted stay.
  • A UHS-facility employee was sentenced to jail after she was caught on camera slamming a young girl into a wall and then sitting on her for 20 minutes.
  • A child was “thrown to the floor” and forced into a seclusion room. The child was found with a fresh, bloody injury on the right side of the face and bruises around the eye.
  • A 12-year-old committed suicide by wrapping a bed sheet around his neck and attaching it to the door of his room in a UHS psychiatric facility, where strict monitoring is required. A 15-year-old also committed suicide, by hanging himself in the bathroom. Another young patient died at a different UHS facility after using towels and a bedsheet to hang himself in the bathroom.
  • A 14-year-old was twice injured when restrained. The boy’s father filed a police report that alleged his son was punched in the face during the second restraint.
  • A 6-year old boy was physically restrained while placed in seclusion, fell face down and sustained a nasal fracture.
  • The mother of an 11-year-old girl treated at one UHS psychiatric hospital filed a lawsuit, alleging negligence, assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The child was frequently seen with large bruises and welts during her stay, the lawsuit alleged.
  • The mother of a 17-year-old boy filed a suit against a now closed UHS facility for wrongful death and abuse and neglect of a child.
  • A child with an injured leg was allegedly refused a wheelchair and made to crawl in her own urine to a bathroom.
  • A 12-year-old gained access to the medication chart and swallowed powerful antipsychotic drugs.
  • A teenage girl was voluntarily admitted to a facility but then refused authorization to leave the next day, even with her parents’ permission. The teen was threatened with a 24-hour hold (involuntary commitment) in solitary confinement. The parents organized a rescue of their daughter and were physically tackled by staff trying to prevent it.
  • An employee was prosecuted and charged with breaking a juvenile patient's arm.
  • Workers at one facility alleged that “children at the facility have been hurt after altercations with staff, were given inadequate food and programming… and children there have been subjected to verbal abuse by staff.” Staph infections, scabies and mold (that can pose health risks) were also found at the facility.  
  • A Youth Development Center was shut down after state authorities terminated its contract over “serious deficiencies that potentially could threaten the health and safety of the youth placed at the program.”
  • Another closure occurred amid a sexual assault investigation. The facility’s psychiatric unit for children had been State-ordered to be shut down.
  • Parents of a 19-year-old boy with autism sued over the alleged wrongful death of their son during a staff restraint procedure.

Sexual Abuse

  • Two 16-year-old female patients told staff, including a therapist, that they had been sexually abused by their roommate while sedated, which the facility didn’t report to officials. In an interview, their therapist said, “I wanted to make sure everybody was safe. I didn’t believe it happened.”  
  • A male teen was sexually assaulted by a patient in the same facility, and another patient had engaged in oral sex with a staff member, reports showed.
  • Police investigated a sexual assault involving two teenage patients. According to law enforcement sources, a hospital official told officers they don't call police for incidents of sexual assault. Instead, they conduct an internal investigation because “they didn't want to upset the children or interfere with their mental health treatment by getting the police involved.”
  • A 14-year-old female patient reported she had been forced by a male peer to have sexual intercourse. The Department of Health also found violations of cross-boarding regulations, including younger children sleeping in the adolescent unit which housed two “known pedophiles.”
  • Two adolescent female patients were threatened and forced to engage in improper sexual activities with a male staff member.
  • A lawsuit was filed on behalf of a minor over his being sexually and physically assaulted by another minor patient who was known to have a “propensity to physically and/or sexually assault other inpatients.” The case was settled in mediation.
  • Two UHS-employed counsellors pleaded guilty to statutory rape of a 15-year-old patient at the facility. Both were required to register as sex offenders.
  • A nurse who sexually abused an 11-year-old boy pleaded guilty to a charge of “gratification of lust” and was jailed for 10 years.
  • An ex-teacher’s aide was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old troubled special needs student.
  • The Florida Department of Justice once estimated that 10% percent of youth at UHS’ Bristol Youth Academy reported sexual victimization by staff in 2012. The facility closed in January 2014.
  • A facility was accused of negligence after a 16-year-old sexual assault victim said she was raped. The teen’s attorney said: “This is just inexcusable because they have cameras. They're supposed to have round-the-clock nurses and medical staff monitoring the patients.” Further, “Once we started digging into it, we just saw how bad their history is over there.”
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