Paris Hilton Advocates on Capitol Hill for Child Welfare Funding, Reform

The reality TV star opened up about the alleged abuse she experienced as a teen in youth residential treatment facilities.

Paris Hilton is calling on Congress to reauthorize federal funding for child welfare services and pass legislation to reform the system.

“I’m here to be a voice for the children whose voices can’t be heard,” Ms. Hilton said in her opening remarks before the House Ways and Means Committee.

The reality TV star-turned advocate first opened up about the alleged physical and emotional abuse she endured as a teen in youth residential treatment facilities in 2021.

Recounting those experiences before the House panel, she said she continues to suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

“These programs promised healing, growth, and support, but instead did not allow me to speak, move freely, or even look out a window for two years,” Ms. Hilton said.

“I was force-fed medications and sexually abused by the staff. I was violently restrained and dragged down hallways, stripped naked and thrown into solitary confinement.”

And all the while, her parents were “completely deceived” as to the level of treatment she was receiving, she said.

A recent Senate Finance Committee investigation found that children suffer “routine” abuse at youth residential treatment centers run by four of the nation’s largest behavioral health providers.

The committee published its report in May, detailing examples of “rampant civil rights violations” at facilities operated by Universal Health Services, Acadia Healthcare, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, and Vivant Behavioral Healthcare.

In addition to numerous instances of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, the report also cited unsafe and unsanitary conditions and “inadequate provision of treatment” as additional reasons for alarm.

Referencing those findings, Ms. Hilton advocated for reauthorization of Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, which expired in 2021. The law allocates funds for child welfare programs, including those that target family preservation and the prevention of abuse and neglect.

She also urged passage of Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D-Calif.) Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, which would establish an interagency work group to improve the implementation of best practices for youth residential programs. The bipartisan bill boasts the support of more than 100 co-sponsors.

“Progress isn’t an option anymore,” Ms. Hilton said. “It’s a life-or-death responsibility.”Public speaker and author Tori Petersen also testified before the panel regarding her own traumatic experiences growing up in the foster care system.

Mrs. Petersen, now a foster mom herself, said she moved through 12 different foster homes as a child, enduring both physical and emotional abuse. While living in her last foster home, however, she found the support system she needed in a new church family, an old friend and mentor, and her high school track coach.

Mrs. Petersen described the guidance she received from those role models as “invaluable” and stressed that federal funding streams for child welfare, like Title IV-B, should be updated to include support for churches, nonprofits, and communities.

Other reforms discussed at the hearing included enhanced oversight of the child welfare system, the creation of youth advisory boards, and increased support for “kinship care,” where children are placed with relatives rather than in the foster system.

“Youth should be with family or adults who know and love them,” Ms. Hilton said.

Bipartisan members of the committee agreed that change was necessary.

The last time Title IV-B was reformed “in any meaningful way” was in 2008, noted Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), the committee chairman. He expressed support for bolstering funds for kinship care and protections for children in foster care.

Likewise, Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the committee’s top Democrat, said he was “thrilled” bipartisan legislation had been introduced to protect children in the system and assist their families.

“I know something about Social Security survivor benefits,” Mr. Neal noted. “But for those benefits, I don’t know what my sisters and I would have done without the goodwill and graciousness of an aunt and grandmother who took us in.”

An estimated 369,000 children were in the U.S. foster care system as of September, Department of Health and Human Services data show. Nine percent of those children were in institutions or group homes.

 

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