My name is Melinda. When I was 13, I was struggling with depression. On October 21, 1998, I was taken away from home by two strange people. I learned many things that day – about child safety locks and “residential treatment centers.” 

I was driven 10 hours from my home in Southern Utah to Northeast Utah to a place called Cedar Ridge. It was essentially a handful of trailers and dilapidated domes on land spoiled by the oil booms and busts of the area. I was in shock when I got there. I had no idea that my parents could sign away my rights and that there were places where the Bill of Rights did not apply. Suddenly, I was subjected to thousands of impossible rules, restrictions on communications, and 24/7 surveillance. I did not like it. I was the youngest person at Cedar Ridge, by a long shot – which was isolating and disturbing. 

I was resistant to “treatment” at Cedar Ridge, but this changed after I was restrained for hours in November 1998. I didn’t want to finish my sandwich. It was humiliating. I was dropped to level 0. I had to start over. I was told that my parents did not love me and that the only way out of that place was to get with the program. I did everything I could to earn my freedom. It was very disturbing to me. I had to tell on my peers. I had to confess to things I hadn’t done. It was terrible, but I got out in a year and a half. I was terrified that they’d keep me until I was 18.

When I got back home, I was very strange. I had a hard time going back to middle school. I couldn’t relate to anyone. I was shunned. It was lonely. I was behind and lacking knowledge about math and science. I needed help. I was allowed to be free for a year and a half, before my parents sent me away again. The same people picked me up and took me back to Cedar Ridge. I was told that if I didn’t comply, they could keep me until I was 21. My parents had signed a court order mandating that I graduate the program again. I would lose another 1.5 years to the program (about 40 months in total). 

I was devastated, but I knew the rules. I knew how to control my emotions, how to say what they wanted. I quickly moved up the levels. I tried to run away during a visit to a nearby university. After that, I was dropped to level 0 again, and put on “compost.” Basically, you would have to shovel animal feces and human food waste across this bleak structure called the isodome. For every fifty shovels, you could earn 1 point. All day was spent shoveling and tallying and asking for checkbacks. It was mind-numbing, pointless, and painful. My therapist used the top floor of this structure for “therapy.” The whole program was punitive and cruel. He told me I was a narcissist and a sociopath. He also told this to my parents to convince them that I needed to stay in the program until I graduated. I was isolated and forbidden from speaking with my peers for 3 months. I was forced to wear an orange jumpsuit like a convict. I had to eat last, sleep with the lights on in the front room of the trailer with staff supervision. I was isolated and my mind began to unravel. I hoped I could astral project my way out of there, and got obsessed with meditation (hint: it didn’t work). 

I liked school, although we didn’t have proper teachers or attend classes. I was forced to “graduate” early, so I would be free to teach karate every morning and spend all day working in the kitchen. I was free labor to them. That was it. 

In 2002, my friend Katie Jo died while trying to leave the program. She was 18 and Rob had twisted her parents into thinking she needed to stay in Utah indefinitely. She lived at his daughter’s house and performed housework for free. She was miserable and desperate for her freedom. As no one would pay for her ticket home, she hitched a ride with someone she hardly knew. They died in a car accident. Rob Nielson blamed Katie Jo for her own death, and used the occasion to raise money for his already profitable business. He charged between $3,500-5,600 per month to use us as manual laborers and build our own prisons. 

I was lucky that I got out in 2003. My parents didn’t want to keep paying. They had drained my trust fund to pay for Cedar Ridge (which was meant to help finance my education or help me buy a house). I have resented that as I did not learn anything worthwhile at Cedar Ridge. I saw my friends beaten, starved, restrained, placed on silence, humiliated, slut-shamed, shamed for their sexual orientation, their race, their ethnicity, being Jewish or on the autism spectrum. Everyone snapped after awhile, that was the entire point of the program, to make you so desperate you’d comply and say and do anything for your freedom. I left Cedar Ridge the second time damaged, confused, and afraid of speaking about it. I buried my head in my books and tried to make-up for my educational deficits from Cedar Ridge. I still lack basic knowledge about math and chemistry and I resent that. 

In 2009, Cedar Ridge was in the news because one of the staff had been sexually abusing teen boys. The boy pulled out stitches from his injuries in a desperate plea for help and finally got the attention of someone. I figured that that would be the end of Cedar Ridge… and went to graduate school.

In 2020, I was horrified to learn that Cedar Ridge was not gone, that in fact, it was up and running and new waves of survivors kept cycling in and out every year. We all had been subjected to the same punishing, terrifying regime: compost, orange jumpsuits, watch levels, being beaten up psychologically by Rob Nielson (our therapist), and often surviving daily beatings by his brutally sadistic son, Wes Nielson. 

I started talking with other Cedar Ridge survivors, and we helped to make sure that Cedar Ridge didn’t do as many programs do – merely flip names and rebrand to escape abuse allegations. We found out that a child who walked into Cedar Ridge had a 4.5x higher chance of being sexually assaulted than a child who went elsewhere. We started keeping track of injuries, damages, medical neglect, assaults, and premature deaths – and were horrified with what we learned. 

We are grateful that Cedar Ridge’s license expired and was not renewed on June 1, 2021. I know that closing programs on a one-by-one basis is not the way to deal with this problem, long-term. We need legislation that will protect children, define abuse in congregate care, and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes. We deserve justice.