in my 2020 documentary“This is Paris,” I revealed a secret I had kept for more than 20 years: When I was 16, I was taken from my home in the middle of the night and spent almost two years at a series of residential treatment facilities. My parents had been conned into believing that my diagnosed attention deficit disorder behavior would be fixed with “tough love.”
I’m still processing the trauma, doing the hard work it takes to tell the whole story in a memoir that will be published next year. It takes all my courage to talk about it, but I couldn’t stand knowing that children as young as 8 years old are being sent to these “troubled teen” programs by parents who don’t know and government agencies that don’t care .
Sexual assaults of children
The last stop on my terrible journey was Provo Canyon School, a lockdown facility where I was sent after I escaped from a couple boot-camp type places. On my first day, I was forced to remove all my clothes, squat and cough, and submit to a gynecological exam – all watched closely by male staff. Although it was an extremely uncomfortable experience, I was led to believe it was a legitimate, routine check for contraband. But what I couldn’t understand as a 16-year-old girl was why that internal exam would be done to me frequently during my time at Provo, and only during the middle of the night.
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I was repeatedly awakened by staff shining a bright flashlight in my face, pulled out of bed and told to be quiet as I was ushered down my dorm’s hallway to an “exam room.” Sleep-deprived and heavily medicated, I didn’t understand what was happening. I was forced to lie on a padded table, spread my legs and submit to gynecological exams. I remember crying while they held me down. I kept saying, “No!” and asking, “Why?” They just said, “Shut up. Be quiet. Stop struggling or you’ll go to Obs.”
Obs – short for observation – was solitary confinement in a tiny cinderblock room with nothing but a drain and a roll of toilet paper. The room was freezing cold, and I was almost naked. I paced until I couldn’t stand up anymore. Then I huddled on the floor and rocked back and forth, forcing myself to think about the life I would create for myself after I got out.
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So many kids around me were just gone. I don’t hope. Not light. This was especially true for girls who got dragged to those sham medical exams and the ones whom adult male staff read at as we showered. If we tried to protest or question anything, they said it was a bad dream. They told us to stop making things up. But looking back on these experiences as an adult woman, I can recognize these exams for what they were: the sexual assault of children.
That experience, and the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse I suffered, led to years of trauma-induced insomnia and complex post-traumatic stress disorder that I and countless other survivors of institutional child abuse have struggled with for years.
This isn’t treatment; it’s torture
The troubled teen industry has been allowed to thrive without transparency or accountability for decades, ranking in tens of billions of dollars while preying on vulnerable families. private-equity firms are increasingly investing. Medicaid, special education and Title IV-E funding for foster kids continues to flow.
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Fourteen years ago, members of Congress heard testimony from federal investigators who found that “staff hog-tied and shackled youth to poles in public places, and girls were forced to eat their own vomit if they threw up while exercising in the hot sun. Staff routinely broke and wired shut the jaws of youth who showed disrespect in another facility. … Youth were sexually assaulted and threatened with sexual assault by other youth in some facilities, all without effective intervention from management.”
Anyone can recognize this isn’t treatment; it’s torture.
Institutional abuse survivors are on Capitol Hill this week to continue educating lawmakers about how badly children placed in the troubled teen industry are treated. We will continue to make our voices heard to rally national support in this important election year to urge Congress to finally stop institutional child abuse.
We all need to make it clear that Americans expect bipartisan leadership and cooperation to address this tragically overlooked children’s human rights crisis immediately. Further inaction is inexcusable.
Paris Hilton is an entrepreneur, model, singer, actress, DJ and survivor of institutional abuse.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paris Hilton: Stop institutional child abuse