These days, Javier Soto can only kiss the wallet-sized photo he has of his smiling daughter. Or while in years past he would lean down and press his lips to her head, now he leans in to kiss a marble slab marking where the 14-year-old girl was buried more than a year ago.
Sofia Soto died in January 2022 at Maple Lake Academy, a treatment center for juveniles in Utah County, after state licensors said staff there would not take her, despite her worsening symptoms and her mother’s pleas to take her to a doctor received adequate medical care.
Her parents filed a civil lawsuit against the Utah program in recent weeks, alleging their daughter died alone in the hallway while a staffer assigned to check on residents fell asleep in another room.
Javier and Patricia Soto say the loss of their 14-year-old daughter, whom they named Sofi, was devastating. They lost their girl, who had deep compassion for people and animals, was obsessed with koalas and had a booming singing voice. They lost Sofi, who was passionate about love and called her autism her “superpower.”
Sofi’s cause of death was not publicly disclosed and was not included in the lawsuit. Her parents allege in their lawsuit that Maple Lake Academy contributed to her death because they were unable to get medical care for Sofi as she was vomiting for days and her health was deteriorating. Had the staff acted sooner, the lawsuit states, Sofi could have received earlier diagnosis and treatment.
Maple Lake Academy did not address the parents’ allegations in a brief statement in response to the lawsuit.
“Of course, this situation is tragic for everyone involved,” the statement said. “It would not be appropriate for us to comment at this time other than to say that our condolences continue to go out to the Soto family for their loss. We respect legal process and will act in good faith in seeking a resolution.”
“Sofi is definitely not feeling well”
It wasn’t an easy decision for the Sotos to send Sofi to Utah to get help, they said.
She grew up in Miami with her mother and had moved to Denver in 2020 to live with her father. Their daughter had struggled, the parents said, and they evaluated her options for about two years before deciding Maple Lake Academy was for her.
“Sofia was on the autism spectrum,” said Javier Soto. “And — like so many young people in our country — she also had some issues with her mental health. We wanted to provide her with all possible resources to help her overcome these challenges.”
Maple Lake Academy’s website states that it caters to youth with autism, anxiety, depression and certain learning disabilities.
“We find that our students are viewed as ‘soft kids’ with lots of anxiety and/or depression, who have trouble regulating their emotions, have a poor history of making and keeping good friends, and are deeply involved friends crave connections with others and loved ones,” the website reads.
Sofi had been at Maple Lake for just over four months before becoming increasingly ill in mid-January. Her parents allege in the lawsuit that Sofi vomited, complained of heartburn and had diarrhea – but staff did little to help her.
State investigators found after Sofi’s death that at least one employee did not believe the girl was actually ill. They found that Maple Lake Academy’s recreational therapist yelled at and berated Sofi when she was too ill to join a hike.
“They don’t know what pain is,” the employee told her, according to multiple interviews conducted by state licensors.
When Sofi’s condition worsened, her mother tried to intervene. According to the lawsuit, Patricia Soto texted the nurse four days before her daughter’s death, asking her to take Sofi to a doctor and have tests run.
“Sofi is definitely not doing well,” she wrote. “She is extremely pale and her lips are white. Something that only happens when she’s sick. She also told us that she has a fever? plea[s]”Let me know what’s up.”
But the nurse did not immediately take Sofi to medical care, the lawsuit says. Staff urged Sofi to drink more fluids, the court filing said, but “inexplicably failed to obtain an outside medical evaluation for her.”
“Combined Failures” that led to Sofi’s death
Eventually, after the mother called again, the Maple Lake Academy nurse tried to arrange a doctor’s visit – but because it was already the weekend by then, she ended up taking Sofi to the Spanish Fork Instacare.
The doctor there diagnosed Sofi with gastroenteritis and she was sent back to Maple Lake without further testing. Her parents have also sued Intermountain Health, which owns the clinic, and the doctor who treated their daughter, claiming that their negligence also contributed to the girl’s death. Intermountain Health declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit.
Later that evening, on Jan. 15, staff tried to get Sofi to drink and eat fluids, the lawsuit says. At some point during the night, the girl got out of bed and fell into the hallway next to the bathroom. She moaned while lying on the floor, the lawsuit says, and didn’t respond when an employee told her to be quiet so she wouldn’t disturb the other girls.
The employee then returned to her office and fell asleep, according to the complaint. (State regulators noted that Maple Lake Academy had provided investigators with logs showing that this employee checked on residents every 15 minutes that night. However, the employee later admitted to investigators that she spent about four hours had slept for a long time.)
An employee who arrived the next morning went to Sofi, according to the lawsuit, and found that she was unresponsive. After calling the Maple Lake Academy nurse, the employee called 911 for help. Sofi died in a hospital later that morning.
Sofi’s parents allege in the lawsuit that the “combined failure” of Maple Lake Academy and its medical staff, as well as Intermountain’s Instacare facility and its doctor, prevented “early diagnosis, treatment and life-saving care” for their daughter’s unspecified medical condition have.
Two teen deaths from treatment in Utah in one year
Sofi wasn’t the only teen to die of a medical problem at a youth treatment center in Utah last year.
Another girl, 17-year-old Taylor Goodridge, died at Diamond Ranch Academy in December from a tissue infection in her abdomen that her family’s attorney said is usually “easily treated.”
Despite Goodridge suffering from symptoms of peritonitis for days, staff at the juvenile treatment center in southern Utah refused her medical treatment, according to the family attorney. She died on December 20, 2022.
Goodridge’s family filed a lawsuit later that month, alleging that staff failed to provide her medical care when she begged for help. Instead, the lawsuit alleges, employees told her she was just faking it and “soaking it up.” Diamond Ranch Academy has asked a judge to dismiss their lawsuit.
Despite those two deaths — and similar allegations that staff ignored the girls’ medical needs — Utah regulators have allowed both Maple Lake Academy and Diamond Ranch Academy to remain open. Both are currently listed as “conditional” status on the Office of Licensing’s website (as of Thursday), which generally means they must submit additional weekly reports or ensure their residents receive prompt medical care.
Goodridge’s parents said in a statement in April they were “perplexed” by the licensors’ decision to resolve the disciplinary case with Diamond Ranch Academy without her family’s involvement.
“Diamond Ranch Academy is now able to continue accommodating ignorant students with naive parents,” they said, “so that the owners of Diamond Ranch Academy can continue to capitalize on the misfortunes of their students and their parents.”
Regulators initially said they were closing Maple Lake Academy after Sofi died and another girl who was staying there did not receive immediate medical attention after hitting her head on the sidewalk a few months later. It was a rare move for the Office of Licensing, which has been criticized for its lack of oversight, which has helped boom Utah’s youth treatment industry.
But the licensing board eventually backed down, changed course, and allowed Maple Lake Academy to remain open. In their complaint, Sofi’s parents described this decision as “surprising”.
For more than a year, the Sotos have mourned their daughter, who died in a place they thought was safe. They relied on their faith and on their memories of Sofi singing in the car or smiling proudly after getting a base hit on the softball field.
They send each other photos of anime-decorated shop windows or other little reminders they see throughout their days that remind them of Sofi.
“Our lives are destroyed,” said Patricia Soto. “It will never be the same again. You learn to endure and you carry that pain every single day of your life, every second of every day. I have the feeling that something is missing. There’s a part of me that’s always missing.”