Tragic Utah facility said it had ‘evolved’
A Utah institution where a Bermudian teenager died last month said it had “evolved” its practices over the past decade for dealing with the children in its care after a string of abuse allegations.
West Ridge Academy, a non-profit agency in West Jordan, has faced several accusations of serious mistreatment of youngsters in their care, including physical and sexual abuse, in recent years.
But executive director Janet Farnsworth told The Royal Gazette that claims made in 2016 by former students Josh Graham and Maria Olsen, and reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, were investigated by authorities and were “all found to be unsubstantiated”.
Mr Graham started at the school in 1998 and Ms Olsen went there in 2012.
A lawsuit filed in 2012 by another pupil, Eric Norwood, who alleged that he was sexually assaulted when he was a pupil there ten years earlier, was settled out of court.
Ms Farnsworth said some of the “treatment protocols” referred to in the Tribune article were “standard practice for many programmes at that time, more than a decade ago”.
She said: “Specifically, a faith-based focus, learning of a trade through working in various jobs on the ranch, removal from the home by trained staff when a student's safety was at risk, etc.
“Treatment protocols and best practices have evolved over time and our agency has evolved in its approach to help our students and their families. To date, we have served over 20,000 kids and families in our programme and most report that they are grateful for our help.
“These cases are isolated and unfortunately get much more attention than the good work we have done for decades.”
Bermuda's Department of Child and Family Services has sent six children to West Ridge since 2013.
Ms Farnsworth said: “Part of the vetting process for placement with Bermudian students is initial and then regular visits from members of the Bermudian DCFS staff, including director Alfred Maybury and members of his team.
“Their visits include file reviews, facility inspections, interviews with students, and meetings with clinicians and other key leadership members at each programme.”
Ms Farnsworth added: “The DCFS team receives frequent written updates on each of their students and also join in assisting with family therapy, visit planning and in attending to any of the personal needs of the students while they are away from home.
“The DCFS staff are an integral part of our treatment process. We value our relationship with this agency and have worked closely together for many years.”
Ms Farnsworth said Mr Norwood's legal action was “resolved by a confidential settlement and no additional comments can be made by either party”.
She added: “The parent of this former student who filed suit against our agency as an adult, many years after leaving our care, provided our agency with a written statement denying the allegations that were made by his son in the suit, and in the ensuing online commentary about our programme over the past decade.”
The executive director said West Ridge was not a locked facility, despite its pupils' “unique and complex challenges”, and that they had the chance to have a normal teenage life under “careful watch and supervision”.
Ms Farnsworth said the school had “strived to serve a vulnerable and often troubled population” of children with severe mental-health problems who required out-of-home placement for more than 55 years and had never had sanctions or corrective action imposed by the state licensing agency.
She added: “Like all treatment centres in Utah, we are highly regulated in our operations. We are inspected regularly, both in announced and unannounced visits each year.
“Additionally, our agency is accredited by a national academic governing body — AdvancEd — and an international governing body — CARF — that do on-site visits, as well as file and facility inspections.
“Lastly, we are annually inspected and approved by the US government agency that oversees international student placement.”
A spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health's Licensing Office said yesterday: “We conduct annual and ad hoc audits at every facility we license.
“From 2017 to 2019 our licensers conducted three annual audits and made four ad hoc visits to West Ridge Academy.”
The death of the 16-year-old Bermudian girl on November 14 is still under investigation by police and other agencies.