Youth facility criticized; state reports it is making progress

Salt Lake Tribune/April 29, 2005
By Kirsten Stewart

In the summer of 1999, child welfare officials sent Stephanie Eatough, a 15-year-old who had spent a third of her life in foster care, to Copper Hills Youth Center for substance abuse treatment.

But after six months at the West Jordan psychiatric facility, Eatough was drawn into a sexual relationship with a counselor twice her age, sending her "off the deep end," she says.

The man was fired and Eatough put the "nightmare" behind her - until hearing in March that another Copper Hills counselor had been arrested and charged with seven felony counts of sodomy and forcible sexual abuse.

The arrest triggered an investigation by state licensing officials, who discovered alleged perpetrator Melanie April Seager had never undergone a criminal background check. On April 1, regulators gave the facility 30 days to come back into compliance or have its license suspended.

"I hoped that things had changed down there. Apparently, they haven't," says Eatough, now a 21-year-old Layton resident and single mother of a 10-month-old baby girl.

With her mother, Michelle Ferry, who regained custody of her shortly before her 17th birthday, she sued the facility and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Eatough urges the state Divisions of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and Juvenile Justice Services to sever their contracts with Copper Hills. The two agencies have 17 children at the 126-bed facility.

Copper Hills executive director Mike Rowley, a licensed clinical social worker, won't discuss the recent arrest, Eatough's allegations, the facility or its track record.

Licensers this week lifted the suspension order after Copper Hills retroactively performed all required background checks. Seager was fired in January, as soon as Copper Hills administrators say they learned she had allegedly molested a 16-year-old female ward of the facility for the previous three months.

"In most cases, failure to keep up on background checks would have merited a warning," said state Human Services licensing director Ken Stettler. "But because of the severity of this case, we felt they needed to have a real wake-up call."

Licensing officials believe the facility's current owners "will be able to bring the facility under control and be more watchful," Stettler said.

Since its 1997 opening, Copper Hills has operated under three different owners. Today, it is run by Kids Behavioral Health, a teen help provider headquartered in Reno, Nev., that also oversees programs in Montana, Hawaii and California.

When Eatough was at Copper Hills, it was under the ownership of Children's Comprehensive Services in Ohio. State licensers say the facility has changed from an in-patient psychiatric hospital to a secure treatment provider for drug abusers and sex offenders.

Eatough, who recently finished training to become a police officer, says she is a "different person" today than six years ago - then a "difficult" teenager who used drugs, was sexually active and prone to lashing out at authority.

But she is still angry at Copper Hills, contending staff knew she had suffered sexual abuse as a child, but initially "did nothing" when she disclosed that a 31-year-old counselor assigned to work with her had made sexual advances. Copper Hills did, as required by Utah law, notify state licensing and law enforcement officials, but investigations failed to yield enough evidence to support criminal charges or other sanctions. Sandra Lucas, executive director of the Utah arm of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), has complained to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. about the state's "half-hearted" oversight of Copper Hills and is threatening to notify the court monitor assigned to oversee Utah's child welfare reform.

CCHR was established in 1969 by the Church of Scientology to investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights.

While under its current ownership, Copper Hills has been investigated twice for complaints ranging from sexual assault to fire and food safety violations.

In August 2004, the facility was cited for failing to maintain minimum staff ratios. Also from 2004, West Jordan Police have 36 reports of simple assault at the facility.

"If this was happening in someone's home, DCFS would intervene. That's what we pay them for," said Lucas. "How many more children are being abused? Abuse is abuse. I don't care where it happens or by whom."

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