Records detail concerns at Narconon facility

Tulsa World/September 22 2014

By Ziva Branstetter

A Pittsburg County district judge will hear arguments Tuesday from attorneys seeking to force the state to release a report that allegedly recommended closure of the Narconon drug rehabilitation facility after three patients died.

Attorney Gary Richardson, who represents plaintiffs in several lawsuits against Narconon’s Arrowhead center, said the hearing in Pittsburg County District Court will focus on investigative records he has requested through a subpoena to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Richardson began seeking the records after a former inspector general for the agency, Kim Poff, and an investigator, Michael DeLong, sued the department in Oklahoma County District Court.

The lawsuits by Poff and DeLong allege that leaders at the Department of Mental Health, including Commissioner Terri White, withheld their final report recommending that Narconon Arrowhead be shut down after the patient deaths.

Their suit claims that the agency “buried the report, recommendations and findings of Ms. Poff and Mr. DeLong because the Department did not want to get involved with litigation involving the Church of Scientology.” It notes that Narconon Arrowhead has “significant financial backing” from the Church of Scientology.

A multiagency investigation of Narconon Arrowhead began after Stacy Dawn Murphy, 20, of Owasso, died from a drug overdose at the facility in July 2012. Her death followed the deaths of patients Gabriel Graves, of Claremore, in 2011 and Hillary Holten, of Carrollton, Texas, in 2012.

Richardson said Narconon has objected to the Department of Mental Health releasing the investigative report. “All we are seeking is the truth,” he said.

Michael St. Amand, a board member of Narconon of Oklahoma, said in an email that Tuesday’s hearing will focus on whether Department of Mental Health records can be disclosed in a lawsuit “while maintaining the privacy of all concerned and upholding the legal obligations of the department.”

“The Court is considering the privacy rights of all concerned, especially those of Narconon students. Narconon Arrowhead respects and abides by the privacy rights of all people seeking drug rehabilitation services and acts vigorously to protect those rights.”

However other state agencies, including the state Health Department and the Department of Human Services, routinely make public investigative reports recommending closure or other actions against licensed facilities. Such reports do not contain names or other identifying information about patients or children.

Narconon Arrowhead is located on the shores of Lake Eufaula near Canadian, northeast of McAlester. The facility can house up to 200 patients, known in the program as students.

The facility is the flagship branch of an international drug-rehabilitation organization rooted in the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The program’s unorthodox treatment includes five-hour daily sauna sessions and large doses of niacin — vitamin B3. Additionally, patients go through training based on Hubbard’s teachings.

Narconon claims that it operates 100 drug rehabilitation and treatment centers in 30 countries, and that its Oklahoma facility is the largest.

Ten lawsuits have been filed in Pittsburg County District Court alleging wrongful deaths of Narconon patients, negligence, fraud and other claims against the drug rehabilitation facility.

Rachel Bussett, an attorney representing Poff and DeLong, has said their investigative report recommending that Narconon be closed was submitted to the Department of Mental Health in the fall of 2012. She said the two “were told to make changes (in the report) by top leadership” but refused to do so.

The department refused to provide a copy of the report following a request by the World. A spokesman for the Department of Mental Health has said the agency turned over its findings related to the investigation to state Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office.

The agency has released inspection reports, correspondence and other public records related to its oversight of Narconon Arrowhead and a medical drug detox facility that Narconon formerly operated in McAlester.

Pruitt’s office has taken no action related to the patient deaths or other alleged problems at Narconon.

Claims in the civil suits include that staff members were trading drugs for sex with patients and that the facility failed to provide medical treatment and oversight, leading to patient deaths.

Following the deaths at Arrowhead, state lawmakers passed legislation touted as giving the state more authority to regulate the facility. After the law changed, Narconon Arrowhead sought certification as a residential substance abuse treatment center but withdrew its application before Department of Mental Health site visits.

The facility has now applied for certification as a substance abuse halfway house, defined by state law as one that provides “low intensity substance abuse treatment in a supportive living environment to facilitate the individual’s reintegration into the community.”

Records show that process is ongoing and that Narconon submitted a variety of documents describing its proposed halfway house program in advance of a state site visit. The program begins with “non-medical detoxification and an initial period of recovery,” records show.

Students undergo “a regimen of light aerobic exercise and dry heat sauna concurrent with nutrient support of vitamins, minerals and cold pressed oils which promotes good health,” according to Narconon’s program description.

“There is published evidence that this regiment can remove residual drug metabolites that may have accumulated in the body from prior drug use,” it states.

Narconon claims a treatment success rate of about 75 percent but medical experts have said there is little support for such claims.

A 2008 Norwegian review of studies cited by Narconon of its effectiveness concludes: “There is currently no reliable evidence for the effectiveness of Narconon as a primary or secondary drug prevention program.”

St. Amand said Narconon’s social education model is “a long respected treatment modality.”

“Narconon organizations have been saving lives for nearly half a century. Narconon Arrowhead is rightfully proud of its own 25-year history of saving people from drug addiction, attested by vigorous review and evaluation and the thousands of successes of its graduates and their families.”

In Oklahoma, Narconon has been the focus of criticism and legal action for allegedly false or misleading claims about its programs, records show.

A national association that certifies drug addiction counselors has sued Narconon Arrowhead, the Church of Scientology and 80 related defendants in federal court. The lawsuit, filed in Oklahoma’s Eastern U.S. District Court in Muskogee, alleges that Narconon employees falsely claimed to be accredited by the National Association of Forensic Counselors “in order to bait vulnerable victims into the Scientology religion.”

Records show that state officials have warned Narconon not to make “inappropriate and misleading” statements regarding its program.

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