Pierce County judges are restricting the use of a Tacoma drug and alcohol treatment clinic, citing “serious questions” about the clinic’s “reliability.”
In a memo sent to prosecutors and defense lawyers, Pierce County Superior Court Presiding Judge Frank Cuthbertson said the court will no longer refer criminal offenders to A Change Counseling Services, located on South M Street in Tacoma. Offenders also will not be allowed to enroll on their own in the clinic’s programs.
“Effective March 21, 2016 evaluations conducted by A Change will no longer be accepted by Superior Court,” Cuthbertson’s letter said.
The Tacoma Municipal Court also barred the use of A Change Counseling and is considering filing a complaint with state regulators, according to court administrator Michelle Petrich.
The courts’ actions follow a KING 5 Investigation that raised serious questions about the clinic’s practices. Several individuals told KING 5 that counselors at A Change were accepting bribes from clients. In exchange, the counselors allegedly submitted false reports to judges that the clients were in compliance with court-ordered chemical dependency treatment when they were not actually attending sessions.
One former client told KING 5 he paid a state-licensed counselor $600 to keep him from filing a “dirty” urinalysis report to the court. The client said he knew his test was clean, but he didn’t want the expense of fighting the accusation in court.
In 2008, A Change owner Clarence Farmer, who is also a state-licensed chemical dependency counselor, was accused of allowing a repeat DUI defendant to skip classes after accepting a $2,000 payment. State Department of Health Investigators closed that case citing “insufficient evidence.”
Counseling is often the first recourse for individuals who get in trouble with the law over a DUI or other crime where substance abuse is involved. Defense attorneys sometimes refer clients to treatment clinics to demonstrate to the courts that the client is willing to take responsibility for their action. The courts use treatment center reports to make sentencing decisions in these cases.
“When folks are actually untreated, then it’s a risk to public safety and so it’s completely unacceptable and causes major concern for the court,” Judge Cuthbertson told KING 5 in an interview this week.
Cuthbertson said offenders already enrolled at A Change won’t be forced to obtain services from a different treatment provider. But he said those offenders should expect judges to ask them specific questions about the progress of their treatment and details of what they’ve learned from A Change.
“I would expect that people who are paying bribes and aren’t actually in treatment are going to have a hard time answering those questions,” Judge Cuthbertson said.
Judge Cuthbertson said he was disheartened to learn that A Change had been investigated four times in the past six years, yet none of that information was ever passed to the courts.
Most of those investigations were conducted by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, which licenses treatment facilities, and the state Department of Health, which licenses individual health care workers.
The state investigations raised many troubling questions about A Change, but only resulted in a single $1,000 dollar fine.
“I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that we’re at this stage of the game finding out how severe and acute things are with that particular agency,” Judge Cuthbertson said.
The judge admitted some of the fault also lies with the Pierce County court system.
The Tacoma Municipal Court had serious problems with late or inaccurate treatment reports from A Change in 2014. It tried to work with the clinic to correct the problems. When that didn’t work, the municipal court removed A Change from the referral list that it hands out to offenders.
However, it didn’t notify the superior or district courts of the problems.
“I think it’s been a good lesson that we need to communicate more effectively,” Cuthbertson said.
A Change owner Clarence Farmer refused to speak with KING 5, saying his attorney advised against it.
If you have information about A Change – or any other drug and alcohol treatment center – that you think the KING 5 Investigators should be aware of please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Puyallup clinic, called A Change Into Recovery, said it has no affiliation with A Change Counseling in Tacoma. A counselor named Kathleen Russell told KING 5 that the similarity in names is "...hitting us hard." Russell says "...we have no affiliation what so ever with A Change..." in Tacoma.
This story originally aired on March 24, 2016.
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