When Meagan Crider began exchanging notes with a staff member at the Utah teen treatment center where she was staying in the early 2000s, the extra attention was exciting.
Crider was 16 years old. The staff member was an adult several years her senior. “I remember we were writing letters back and forth,” she said. “That’s how we communicated. And I bet there were two boxes full of letters.
They kept their notes secret. But at some point — she doesn’t remember exactly when — Crider said the tone of the letters changed. “The letters were starting to cross the line more and more,” Crider said. “She knew she might get in trouble for this. That’s why we had to be so discreet.
The staff member managed to get Crider out of the program and into his apartment. There, the woman had sexual contact with her, according to Crider.
The former staffer, who Sent Away does not identify as she has not been charged with a crime, did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Crider left Integrity House in 2003. While there, Crider didn’t tell anyone what was going on. It wasn’t until three years later that her mother found shoeboxes of letters at their home in Texas and alerted Integrity House and the police. But his report went nowhere.
Inappropriate contact between children and staff members has occurred with some frequency in Utah’s adolescent treatment programs. Between November 2018 and July 2021, state regulators investigated at least 20 reports of staff pushing boundaries with children, sometimes amounting to sexual abuse. State records show 13 people quit or were fired from youth treatment centers after allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior during that time, according to an analysis of Sent Away reporter data.
Utah law is clear that minors cannot consent to sexual activity with an adult, especially if that person is in a position of trust, such as youth treatment center staff.
Experts say this type of abuse can occur in congregate care programs where young people are often isolated from their families with under-trained staff watching. They also say it can be avoided with proper supervision and clear boundaries.
That didn’t happen when she was at Integrity House, Crider said. “Those lines, without a doubt, have been crossed. It was pretty good. »
What happened to Crider happened 20 years ago. But analysis of Sent Away data shows that staff crossing borders with children at Utah’s youth treatment centers is an ongoing problem. In the first half of 2021, at least five facilities disclosed inappropriate staff behavior to state regulators.
It happened last January, when a teenager alleged that a member of staff at Logan River Academy touched his upper thigh.
“The student in question has lied in the past regarding staff indiscretions,” a member of management wrote in a report to regulators, noting that the accused staff member was still fired because she was not in contact with children.
Weeks later, regulators received a report that a woman who worked at the Falcon Ridge Ranch slapped the students’ buttocks and showed them a photo of her husband’s genitals. She got fired.
Last June, a child protection worker sent a photo to the state that showed a Renewed Hope Ranch staff member rubbing and combing his fingers through the teenagers’ hair.
“These images show inappropriate boundaries and what could be considered grooming,” wrote the government employee who reported it. “Male staff and female staff are not allowed to do this. They allow it. »
Last month, Iron County police charged a 23-year-old man after he allegedly kissed a girl while working at Zion Hills Academy. The facility’s director of programs said the employee was terminated.
Inside the Documents: Critical Incident Reports
SOURCE: Utah Licensing Bureau
Lise Milne, a professor at the University of Regina in Canada, has researched child sexual abuse in residential treatment. She said sexual abuse in group care facilities was “surprisingly high” in the United States and Canada. “Sexual abuse, whether perpetrated by staff members or peers, is common enough to warrant concern and ensure that strong measures are in place for its prevention,” Milne said.
It’s critical, she said, that institutions take care with hiring, training and monitoring to ensure boundaries aren’t crossed.
The insular nature of group care can contribute to sexual misconduct, Milne noted, as well as uneven staff training on youth development and the need to establish boundaries between children and staff. “It’s really important (to remember) that even when they act like adults or grown-ups, or even seem to invite this activity, they’re still children,” she said.
Lack of accountability
Crider’s mother called Cedar City Police and Integrity House in 2006 after finding her mailboxes and speaking with her daughter. The police report noted that Crider’s mother said her daughter disclosed what happened “to prevent another young woman from being involved in an inappropriate relationship” with the staff member.
But there is no indication that the Cedar City Police Department took any action other than writing down what Crider’s mother reported. The officer who took the report told a Sent Away reporter that he wasn’t sure why it seemed like nothing happened and that generally reports like this would be dismissed. for investigation.
The former employee was never charged. And there is no record that Integrity House management reported the allegation to state regulators, which they were required to do.
Daniel Taylor, who ran Integrity House at the time, said in an interview with Sent Away that the management did little to investigate Crider’s allegation themselves.
“No. 1, that was not the (employee’s) character,” he said. “No. 2, these individuals, young girls, they don’t want to be there. They are angry. They will say or do anything they can to get out of the program or where they are. So I had no proof. There was no investigation into it. So it was just like – what do we do about it?
Crider thought his mother had received an out-of-court settlement from Integrity House. His mother would not accept an interview. Faron Taylor, Daniel’s older brother and at the time owner of Integrity House, said a lawyer had “handled” the situation, but declined to give further details.
Crider said she read about teen treatment programs as she got older and started a family. Sometimes it’s hard for her to believe she’s been through it herself.
It angers her, she says, to think about how these programs cater to desperate parents who feel they have no other choice. Yet even years later, some of these programs have not always kept children safe. “I’m flabbergasted that we don’t have better measures in place to make sure these kids get what they need. It doesn’t feel right to me,” she said.
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