Journalism in the Public Interest

Yet Another Scandal Rocks Utah Home for Vulnerable Children

Police raided the home after an employee reported sex among residents and misconduct by staff.

Mount Pleasant Academy in Utah. (Kim Raff for ProPublica)

In 2014, an employee at a group home for troubled children in Utah said they informed superiors that a staff member was having sex with one of the boys the home was charged with safeguarding. When nothing happened, the employee helped alert local child welfare officials, and the staff member was eventually charged and convicted of sexual battery.

But Utah officials took no action against the home, Mount Pleasant Academy. It was allowed to continue housing as many as 16 boys, almost all of them sent to the home to be treated for a variety of sexual addictions or disorders.

“We found no evidence of violation of our rules,” said Diane Moore, the licensing director for the Utah Department of Human Services, which oversees the operation of group homes in the state.

Barely 18 months later, the same employee said they made another grim discovery: several boys, at least one as young as 13, were having sex with each other with the full knowledge of members of the home’s staff. Worse, the employee alleged, the home’s director shared video of the sexual activity with other employees. The employee made direct reports to state authorities, and last week the Sanpete County Sheriff’s office raided the home, taking computers, surveillance tapes and other possible evidence.

A search warrant based on the employee’s claims lays out the suspected crimes: forced sexual abuse of a minor; unlawful sexual activity with a minor; abuse and neglect of a child with a disability.

Still, Mount Pleasant Academy is open, with boys remaining in its care.

“Yes, children are still placed there pending further fact finding,” said Moore, the state licensing director. “Even if violations are found, facilities may remain open while addressing corrective action plans and timelines as long as there is no perceived further risk to critical health and safety rules. These are the very things we will be assessing moving forward.”

Mount Pleasant Academy’s program director, Matt Kiefer, told ProPublica he was “not going to be talking” about the latest developments. Kiefer is the man accused by the employee of sharing sex videos with his staff.

Brian Pace, executive director of Red Rock Canyon, the parent organization of Mount Pleasant, said information ProPublica had obtained was “incorrect” but declined to elaborate.

“We always work with our licensing agency and local law enforcement to get these matters resolved,” he said. “We also do our internal investigations and if disciplinary measures are necessary we take them.”

In 2015, ProPublica examined the raft of problems plaguing group homes for vulnerable children in California. We discovered that California was so bereft of safe options for its troubled children that it had sent hundreds of them out of state, some 600 to Utah alone.

And California was doing so knowing the risks: Utah had suffered a variety of scandals involving its own group homes, including one that led to a lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of children who said they had been abused at facilities in the state.

Indeed, Red Rock Canyon, the parent facility located in St. George, Utah, had a sex scandal in 2014. A worker pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexually abusing three residents, one of whom was just 13. A state investigation found that the facility did not properly report the abuse to the Department of Human Services, which oversees group homes throughout the state.

Again, no action was taken against Red Rock Canyon, and it now turns out that an almost identical crime took place in 2014 at Mount Pleasant.

The employee who made the reports about Mount Pleasant in 2014 and again this year spoke to ProPublica and laid out what the employee said was a deeply disturbing series of events and failures to act. The employee has since quit and would not be identified for fear of reprisal.

The employee said that in 2014 officials at the home became aware that a 20-year-old employee named Robert Quirt Ashworth had sex with a minor at the home over the course of several months. The sex would occur in locations at the facility that were not monitored by surveillance cameras. The employee said they were told their only responsibility had been met – to report it to their superiors. But when Ashworth went unpunished, the employee went to the authorities. The former employee said that Ashworth was spared discipline by the home’s management because he was related to senior officials there.

Ashworth was charged with a misdemeanor count of sexual battery of a minor at the home in 2015. He pleaded guilty in Sanpete County District Court. Efforts to contact him were not successful.

Moore, the director of licensing for Utah, tried to explain why the state authorities were limited in what they could do against the home.

“As serious and abhorrent as this crime was, our statutory oversight is in regards to the licensee and their program.  We assess to ensure that no rule violations contributed to the incident. Our inquiries include but are not limited to verification of incident notification, staffing ratios, training, current staff background screenings, and overall administrative response by the program.”

“Of course the action of the employee was a violation and a crime,” Moore added. “But we have to be able to tie that unfortunate event to specific rule violations by the licensee in order to take action against the licensee.”

The latest set of incidents, the former employee said, had taken place over several weeks. That boys were having sex with each other was widely known, and even treated as an amusement.

“So many staffers knew what was going on— too many to name— but no one reported it,” the former employee said. “We were told to go through our chain of command.”

The employee said that at least one child connected to the activity had been arrested.

Last December, Mount Pleasant was featured in a ProPublica article that examined the number of troubled California children sent out of state. That story focused on the journey of 15-year-old Deshaun Becton, a boy who lived in several California group homes before landing in Mount Pleasant in the summer of 2015.

Out of Options, California Ships Hundreds of Troubled Children Out of State

One 14-year-old boy’s search for care takes him to Utah as his home state struggles to safeguard its most challenging children. Read the story.

The boy’s adoptive mother, Veronice Becton, was hesitant to have Deshaun live at the home. She only agreed to place him there because she was completely out of options. Deshaun’s often violent outbursts had exhausted the resources of several other group homes meant to provide intensive care to emotionally disturbed children. Deshaun’s parents eventually removed him from Mount Pleasant after he had been hurt in several encounters with the staff. When Veronice Becton arrived to pick him up, she found him filthy and disheveled.

As a result, when she learned last week that officers with the Sanpete County Sherriff’s department had begun investigating allegations of sexual abuse, Veronice Becton was distressed, but not shocked. She said she intends to contact police in Utah to make Deshaun is available to be interviewed.

“They were never very transparent,” she said of the leaders of Mount Pleasant. “I don’t know if it was just me, but I felt like they did not appreciate any kind of questions or inquiries at all. They were very hostile towards us.”

The former employee remembered Deshaun fondly. The employee said the home had recognized it was not appropriate for Deshaun, but had taken him in because it wanted to keep its beds filled.

“Please tell her, I can’t take ownership for what happened to him, but I am very, very sorry,” the employee said of Veronice. “I care deeply for their son.”

Michael Weston, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services said no children from the state’s foster care or juvenile justice systems were currently placed at Mount Pleasant.

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