The first time Uvea Spezza-Lopin traveled on a plane, she was 9 and in the custody of the Oregon foster care system. State child welfare officials sent her to a psychiatric residential treatment facility in Montana. There, she was regularly sedated, restrained and locked in a seclusion room.
This week, Spezza-Lopin, now 12, took another flight. This time she headed to Washington, D.C., to speak alongside U.S. lawmakers to support an effort to federally regulate what’s often called the “troubled teen” industry.
Between 2016 and 2018, the number of foster children Oregon leaders sent to residential treatment facilities in other states skyrocketed. Children were scattered across 16 different states at one point. At the time, state workers said they didn’t have enough foster placements in Oregon.
OPB documented Spezza-Lopin’s case in 2019. Her story helped create momentum for eventually bringing all of the Oregon children placed in out-of-state placements back home.
But the lucrative industry, operated primary by privately held and for-profit operators, is still largely unregulated nationwide.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said what it boils down to is “congregate care without oversight becomes congregate abuse.”
“That is what we discover all too often when we look into the system,” Merkley said at the press conference, according to audio captured by KUER radio.
The senator noted Oregon had stopped placing children in such facilities, in large part due to the work of Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis. Gelser Blouin grilled Oregon state child welfare officials after OPB broke the news in 2019 that the state was shipping children out of state.
“Let’s stop the system of shipping children out of state to facilities that have no oversight,” Merkley said Wednesday.
Merkley and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, are pushing to create a commission in the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee congregate care. The legislation would also give grants to states to help regulate the facilities. Finally, it would create a bill of rights to ensure kids placed in care don’t lose their rights.
An estimated 120,000 to 200,000 minors are placed in congregate care facilities across the United States annually, according to information from Breaking Code Silence, an advocacy group made up of people who were placed in treatment facilities.
“Many children leave these facilities more traumatized than when they arrived,” U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, said at the press conference.
This week, Spezza-Lopin shared her story of being in foster care off and on since she was a baby, of being placed in 15 different placements, homes and institutions, of being thrown onto a concrete floor, put in a headlock and called a pervert by adult caretakers while in Montana.
The girl from Junction City, Oregon, spent her day in Washington, D.C. with an unlikely friend, Paris Hilton. The celebrity and entrepreneur was abused while at Utah’s Provo Canyon School in the 1990s and has joined the effort to bring more oversight to the industry.
Hilton noted the state-by-state patchwork of regulations under which these facilities currently operate is not working and detailed the abuse she suffered as a teen.
Spezza-Lopin spent her time in Washington lobbying with Hilton. She met well-known politicians and appeared on Good Morning America. She ate at her first restaurant that used cloth napkins.
But as she stood in front of the U.S. Capitol, with photographers snapping photos and microphones in her face, she was thinking of her best friend at the facility in Montana, another young girl with whom she has no way of contacting.
“Ella, if you’re out there,” she said. “I’m doing this for us.”