Scientology-related Narconon rehab center may have violated law

Tampa Bay Times/August 25, 2014

By Joe Childs

Its officers rented three properties elsewhere in Spring Hill and expanded there. That allowed the center to admit more patients. Narconon charges up to $30,000 for a three-month stay.

One site was in a commercial center. Narconon shuttled patients there for what director Tammy Strickling described as "daily therapeutic classes.'' The other two sites were houses. One slept eight, the other six. Narconon staffers, trainees and overflow patients bunked there.

"I don't like turning anyone away,'' Strickling said in court last year.

But all three rented locations may have violated state law.

Substance abuse treatment centers in Florida are required to deliver services only at licensed facilities. Since Narconon opened in 2008, it had been licensed by the state Department of Children and Families to provide services at one place, 8213 Cessna Drive.

"My mouth is hanging open,'' said Department of Children and Families licensure specialist Troy McDermott, when told of the rented sites. In his 21 years at DCF, he never has encountered a center providing services at unlicensed facilities, he said.

Penalties can range from a moratorium on patient admissions to loss of license.

Strickling declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email Friday night, she said her facility, also known as Suncoast Rehabilitation Center, was licensed at the rented commercial space, which is on Hearth Road.

It was, but just by a matter of hours.

Earlier Friday, DCF had issued Narconon a temporary license to provide "intensive outpatient'' services at the site. Its application had arrived mid-week, as the Tampa Bay Times was asking Narconon's leadership team for comment.

McDermott said Strickling explained she thought it was permissible to have an off-site classroom. It wasn't, he told her.

"She apologized,'' he said. "She said she didn't want to be outside the law.''

They also discussed the two houses, which Narconon first leased in 2011. One house, on Cone Shell Drive, is no longer rented. A house on Deltona Boulevard is a dorm only for staffers and former patients training to become staffers, Strickling told McDermott. He told her: Active patients can't live there.

Narconon has placed program patients in the houses previously, Strickling has said. If it was an extension of the residential treatment center, that was not allowable, McDermott said.

DCF lawyers will decide whether to launch a formal investigation, he said.

The facility in Spring Hill is part of a network of Narconon drug treatment centers in 10 states. The nonprofit rehabs are linked to Scientology by two church-affiliated corporations. Narconon centers pay the corporations annual fees.

But in recent years, Narconon has been awash in controversy.

Three patients died in nine months in 2011 and 2012 at an Oklahoma Narconon. A grand jury last week recommended investigations continue.

In the Atlanta area, a Narconon outpatient center closed last year as authorities investigated possible insurance fraud. Earlier, a patient had died of a drug overdose while housed in unsupervised, rental quarters arranged by Narconon.

And in California, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan, former patients and their families have sued Narconon centers. A common claim: Narconon lured patients with claims of a 76 percent success rate and no religious elements. Former patients say they were required to study the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — a masked recruitment strategy. The high success rate is not supported by verifiable evidence, the suits contend.

Church of Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw, in Los Angeles, did not respond to a request for comment.

At Spring Hill's Narconon, better times could be ahead, despite licensing issues.

Tuesday, Hernando County commissioners are scheduled to review a proposed financial settlement in a court case Narconon won after suing the county in 2011.

Narconon and its property owner, Toucan Partners, sued in federal court in Tampa after commissioners denied Narconon permission to expand from 22 beds to 54 in 2008. Commissioners reversed the county's Planning and Zoning Board, turning down the request after neighbors of the facility voiced safety concerns.

Narconon and Toucan Partners, which is directed by well-known Clearwater Scientologist Kurt Feshbach, argued the county had violated fair housing laws. As the case moved forward, Strickling disclosed the center's off-site rentals.

In an October 2012 declaration, she said the county's denial had "forced'' Narconon to house some clients — her term for those in treatment — off-site and conduct counseling services away from the facility.

When the case went to trial in January 2013, Strickling testified: "We have hit capacity a number of times. My purpose is to help people. . . . It's very hard to say, 'No, we're full.' ''

She added: "We opened up space to add more clients by moving delivery program facilities off-site."

Strickling testified the rental houses on Cone Shell Drive and Deltona Boulevard originally were for staffers and trainees. But clients also slept there.

"We will use them to house clients, as necessary,'' she said. "I don't like to do that, but I will do it.''

Narconon's attorney, Ethan J. Loeb of Tampa, asked if that was effective in treating addiction.

"No,'' Strickling said. She added: "They should go into the facility that they're paying — or wanting to come into and be with the rest of the group.''

The jury awarded Narconon $74,490 in damages, far from the $6.2 million it sought. The center appealed and won a new trial. But with a higher damage award possible in a second trial, the county entered mediation.

Strickling and her husband, Sean Strickling, also have another project under way — one in Clearwater. A company managed by Sean Strickling bought a former church at 1390 Sunset Point Road. The Stricklings told the city they plan a halfway house with the same name as the Narconon in Spring Hill — Suncoast Rehabilitation Center.

It also will have a sauna. All Narconon centers have saunas.

The Stricklings declined to discuss with the Times their plans for that facility.

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