State taking steps to shut down Narconon of Georgia

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NORCROSS, Ga. - Channel 2 Action News has confirmed Georgia's Department of Community Health is taking steps to shut down a local drug treatment program after a Channel 2 investigation exposed Narconon of Georgia for lying about its license.

Narconon of Georgia is only licensed for outpatient drug treatment, but state inspectors now believe it has really been running a residential program, which would normally command more stringent requirements and scrutiny.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer broadcast a series of five reports in October during which a whistleblower told Fleischer she altered Narconon's letterhead to remove the word "outpatient" when writing to courts and probation officers around the country.

Records also showed 21 out of 28 patients interviewed, who told state inspectors they were here from out of state, as part of Narconon's residential program.

The DCH Commissioner announced he was launching a new state investigation into the facility's conduct, and investigators conducted a surprise inspection of the Norcross facility last month.

For the first time, inspectors cited violations, which fall into the state's most serious tier, meaning they "caused death or serious physical or emotional harm" or "pose an imminent and serious threat."

Investigators also reviewed evidence "confirming that Narconon of Georgia was knowingly operating as a residential program ... that the facility failed to update its license ... and provided misleading information to the public which negatively affected the health and safety of [Patrick Desmond]."

Desmond died in 2008 while enrolled at Narconon of Georgia. A Florida drug court ordered him into inpatient treatment for alcohol addiction. But he got drunk with his housing monitor, left with two program flunkies, and tried heroin for the first time.

"We were assured all along the line, this was an inpatient situation," said Colleen Desmond, Patrick's mother, "It breaks my heart. He wasn't cared for. I feel the whole place was just a total fake scam."

The Desmonds' attorney, Jeff Harris, applauds the state's latest inspection report, and efforts to revoke Narconon's license.

"When you cast a light on government agencies sometimes, it unfortunately encourages them to do things that they should have done before," said Harris, "We do hope that they'll shut them down."

In a written statement, attorney Barbara Marschalk said Narconon of Georgia strongly disagrees with the findings mentioned in the report and plans to vigorously oppose any efforts to revoke its license.

In September, Narconon Executive Director Mary Rieser told Channel 2 all patients sign a form while registering, which acknowledges they are in an outpatient program.

"I will never knowingly accept somebody here if I know they've been ordered inpatient, because we're not," said Rieser.

As recently as November, the website belonging to parent organization, Narconon International, was still advertising the Georgia program as residential. However, state investigators repeatedly overturned violations resulting from years of complaints, for fear the evidence wouldn't hold up in court.

"They don't have the regulatory power that they really need under the law and my sense from looking at these recent documents is they've been trying to shut this place down," acknowledged Harris.

Georgia's Department of Community Health does not have subpoena power. But now, the state will have access to the evidence and sworn statements from a pending civil case filed by the Desmonds.

In her statement, Marschalk characterizes the lawsuit as "very contentious" and said, "The accusations made in the survey report are hotly disputed by the parties in the underlying litigation.

She said Narconon of Georgia has formally requested a hearing to dispute the findings.

A DCH spokesman acknowledged those hearings can take months to schedule and the program is allowed to stay open during that time.

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