A group of congressional Democrats said Wednesday that they plan to work with Paris Hilton to create new regulations to prevent the abuse of children in facilities for troubled teens.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said he is drafting legislation that would give children in youth facilities the right to call their parents, be free from restraints, and have access to clean drinking water and nutritional meals — none of which is currently ensured for thousands of children in these facilities nationwide.
“The multibillion-dollar troubled teen industry has been able to mislead parents, school districts, child welfare agencies and juvenile justice systems for decades,” said Hilton, a media personality and entrepreneur who has become a prominent activist calling for more oversight of youth facilities. “The reason is a systemwide lack of transparency and accountability.”
In an interview with NBC News on Wednesday, Hilton said that during her time in those programs, she was choked, slapped, spied on while showering and deprived of sleep.
"There are thousands of these types of schools, and there is almost 200,000 children every year put into these places," Hilton said. "And every day, children are being physically, emotionally, verbally, psychologically and sexually abused."
The soon-to-be introduced legislation, as described by lawmakers, would make sweeping changes across several types of youth facilities, including those that care for foster children and children with mental health disorders and rely on taxpayer funding, as well as institutions that rely on payment from parents to take in their disobedient teens. Programs that receive no public funding currently face no federal regulation.
“This is not a messaging bill — this is a bill we need to pass,” Khanna said.
Youth facilities have come under increasing pressure in recent years following the deaths of several children and investigations detailing abuse going unchecked, as well as a rising wave of activism by people who spent time in these facilities.
“Congress needs to act because children are dying in the name of treatment,” Hilton said. “This is a human rights issue. People should be outraged with what’s happening.”
A sweeping report released this month by the National Disability Rights Network, an advocacy group, outlined egregious examples of mistreatment in youth facilities, including excessive use of physical restraints of children, overuse of psychiatric medication and sexual abuse by facility employees.
“We discovered that these issues were very serious and very consistent from state to state,” said Diane Smith Howard, managing attorney for criminal and juvenile justice at the National Disability Rights Network.
Megan Stokes, executive director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, an industry trade group, said she supports creating federal standards, “because we’d like to see everyone held to the same standards of care.”
Advocates working with Khanna’s office said they intend to establish a “Bill of Rights” for youth in congregate care settings, which would guarantee proper toiletries and nutrition, and prohibit facilities from withholding sleep, meals or hydration, and from placing children in isolation rooms, closets or cages as punishment. Advocates also want to establish avenues for children to report violations to state and federal authorities.
Three Democratic members of Congress — Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Adam Schiff of California, and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon — said they will co-sponsor the bill. They are working with several groups that advocate for foster youth, children with special needs and institutionalized teens. One of the groups, Breaking Code Silence, has started circulating policy briefs regarding the pending legislation.
“Federal legislation needs to be passed to have a stronger sense of accountability, to have more teeth,” said Vanessa Hughes, organizational director of Breaking Code Silence. “States have had ample opportunity. They have not succeeded in regulating this industry.”