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Deaths At California Rehab Centers Prompt Push For Reform

SACRAMENTO (KPIX) -- As a public safety advocate, Wendy McEntyre has been doing the work the State of California has failed to do for more than a decade.

"It's been 15 years of rolling a snowball uphill," McEntyre said. She runs and has dedicated her life to fighting for rehab reform in California.

"I can't keep coming to the state with this list of dead boys," she said.

ALSO READ: Investigation Shows Hundreds Of Patients Dying At California Rehab Centers

Every day she gets a call from parents who have lost children in addiction treatment in California. She wants to see more accountability in a system that's operating with little to no oversight, with deadly consequences.

"If treatment was working 200 people a day wouldn't be dying," McEntyre said.

McEntyre knows from personal experience how little accountability California's addiction treatment facilities have. Her son, Jarrod, died in a sober home in 2004. She can't shake the guilt that she helped choose the place that may have cost him his life.

"I will never forget printing out these resources and calling the safe house and them saying 'We'll help him,'"said McEntyre. "So as a mother to highlight a place, it's the most horrific feeling in the world to know I sent him to the safe house."

Lawmakers are well aware of the problem. The state commissioned a team to study it back in 2012. The study concluded concluded that the state "consistently failed to catch life-threatening problems" and showed "reluctance to shut down programs that pose a danger to the public."

It also found that other states require medical care to be provided inside detox facilities, while California doesn't.

Anne Russell thinks having a doctor at her son's rehab might have saved his life.

"When people finally say 'enough I need help' there should be a system that's supportive and works and helps turn it around," Russell said.

Anne and Tim Russell sent their 19-year-old son Teddy to Mountain Vista farm last year. He died 7 hours after being admitted. Staff failed to check on Teddy every 30 minutes, which is required by state law.

"It's so horrible. I just feel like he basically just died alone suffering in pain," Anne Russell said.

State Investigations of Deaths at Rehabilitation Centers
Source: California Department of Health Care Services

Class A Deficiencies indicate the rehab violated state protocol and put residents in immediate danger.
Class B Deficiencies indicate the rehab violated state protocol and may have endangered residents.
Class C deficiencies indicate the rehab violated protocol and corrective action needs to be taken.

Public records show 190 deaths have occurred at licensed rehabs in California since 2010. That doesn't include sober homes, where people often stay for 30 days or longer after detox. Sober homes are not required to be licensed and do not have to report deaths.

"We don't even know how many facilities there are in California," state Sen. Jerry Hill said.

Hill (D-San Mateo) introduced a bill this year that would require the Department of Healthcare Services to oversee sober homes for the first time. He's one of ten lawmakers who formed a bipartisan group that hopes to make reforms to addiction treatment this legislative session.

"Sunlight is, as we know, the best disinfectant," said Hill. "SB25 shines a light into the dark corner of this substance abuse treatment world."

When you look at who is running addiction treatment programs it's even worse. To be a counselor at a rehab or sober home you do not need any experience, and state law only requires that you apply for a certification test which you have up to five years to study for.

California does not require background checks on counselors, when 13 other large states do including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

The state report found sexual misconduct is the number one complaint in California, yet rehabs "regularly hire sex offenders," and "most are rapists and pedophiles."

As we reported in November of last year, California is also lax on what's known as patient brokering, where rehabs pay for clients to come to their facility. Alex Strickling died of an overdose when a so-called body broker lured him from a rehab in Florida. The broker provided him with drugs so that he could test dirty.

In Florida that's now a felony with up to a $500,000 fine, in California rehabs caught patient brokering only risk losing their license.

We asked Sen. Hill why it has been so difficult for this state to take action. "These places have resources and good lobbying in Sacramento and sometimes that presents a problem," he said.

The hope is that this year will lead to change. Hill and Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris are part of a bipartisan group working to improve oversight of addiction treatment programs. 14 bills were introduced at the start of the session, five have survived. Even if they pass, lawmakers admit this state has a long way to go.


This story was produced as a project for the USC Center for Health Journalism's California Fellowship

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