The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will have a public hearing Tuesday morning in downtown Los Angeles on plans for the Scientology-based drug rehabilitation program in Leona Valley.
Narconon Southern California plans to turn an abandoned boarding school on Bouquet Canyon Road into a rehab center for 66 people, people Narconon refers to as “clients.” Stays at the facilities typically last several months and cost some $20,000.
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Clark Carr, president of Narconon International, said the Bouquet Canyon location is well-suited for what would be the first Narconon facility in the county in 10 years, after another facility moved to Orange County.
“It is a very good location to do drug rehabilitation, both for people wanting to spend three to four months studying, taking vitamins and getting healthy, and we feel it’s right in terms of how the neighbors are spread out, in a relatively isolated location,” Carr said.
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Treatment consists of studying life, communication and learning skills, as well as taking vitamins and using a sauna for “sweating toxins out of the body,” he said.
But nearby resident Andria Witmer and others say the location is wrong, and find past state violations at other Narconon centers troubling.
After the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission OK’d Narconon’s conditional-use permit application in March, county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose 5th District includes the Antelope Valley, requested the Board of Supervisors review the project.
Antonovich aide Norm Hickling said the supervisor’s action was propelled by the amount of discussion in the community and questions about the adequacy of the conditions put on the project by the commission.
“Many things have been talked about regarding public safety, traffic safety, access to emergency medical care, accessibility of emergency medical care during times of inclement weather,” Hickling said.
On the commission’s conditions, Hickling said, questions related to, “Were they adequate, do they need to be enhanced and added to, and looking at the size of the population that could be at the facility at one time, what kind of security measures need to be in place?”
Traffic conditions related to winding Bouquet Canyon Road also came up, he said, regarding the possible need for a deceleration lane and turning pockets.
Witmer, who lives not far from the site, said her research into Narconon’s other facilities show it would be a bad fit for the neighborhood.
Through public records obtained from the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, Witmer uncovered numerous violations substantiated by state investigators, including findings of alcohol on the premises and a lack of tuberculosis testing of staff and clients.
“Complaints found substantiated by ADP included operating without a license, staff members and addicts leaving the facility to go drinking, staff members and addicts having sex, storing alcohol on the premises, male and female addicts being housed together, addicts not being tested for TB and having nonqualified staff,” said Witmer, who has organized the state documents into a coded binder.
The alcohol storage violation was noted in January 2003 at the organization’s Newport Beach facility, which also was the subject of violations regarding improper handling of drugs and opening an adjacent location without a license.
The violation regarding staff members and clients leaving the facility to obtain alcohol came from a February 2003 investigation of Narconon’s Watsonville facility.
The Northern California location also was found to house male and female clients without adequate privacy, in June 2004 and August 2004; and staff members were found to have had sex with clients in an April 2004 investigation.
In addition, the Watsonville facility was found to be providing care to adolescent males at an unlicensed facility.
Violations relating to a lack of tuberculosis testing were found at the Newport Beach and Watsonville locations.
“With all these past violations, we’re supposed to expect them to be good neighbors and follow the CUP rules?” she asked. “They’re not credible.”
Carr, however, said all violations were quickly resolved and the organization passed two recent unannounced inspections with flying colors.
“Every Narconon center in California and in the United States is licensed and in full compliance with the law,” he said. “We have a very good working relationship with the Department of Alcohol and Drug programs for decades here. When deficiencies are found sometimes, we comply quickly. We’re working really hard with our management of Narconon, and within the last month, two surprise inspections found zero deficiencies.”
Of the specific violation regarding staff members drinking with a client, Carr said the staff members were dismissed immediately, and the facility’s executive staff was disciplined.
“We take this very seriously,” he said.
Witmer also believes Narconon failed to reach out to residents of Bouquet Canyon, as the group was instructed by the Planning Commission. Narconon staff members attended local town council meetings, but Witmer said some residents of upper Bouquet Canyon have Saugus mailing addresses and work in Santa Clarita or Los Angeles and do not follow the activities of the town councils.
Carr said that residents don’t need to worry about the clients of the facility because the high price tag ensures residents choose to come.
“It’s a voluntary admission program. They may have had a DUI or something, but they are not court-ordered to attend the program,” he said.
“People who come here have to pay $20,000 to $25,000, ï¿½ This is the program they want to do, so we have a very good success rate.”
Carr said three out of four clients who graduate from the program stay off drugs or alcohol “permanently.”
He said that statistic is based on one- to two-year studies done by the center staff members, and Narconon hopes in the future to do longitudinal studies.
“I definitely stand by that statistic,” he said. “This is not theoretical for me.”
Based on the ADP documents, Witmer doubts the truth of the idea that Narconon clients pay their own way and come by their own choice.
Documents show numerous examples of disgruntled parents complaining about the treatment received by their children, whose stays they paid for. Other documents show evidence of clients who came in to the treatment centers high on drugs or who were “oppositional” to coming.
Carr said that if a client’s family paid for the stay, the client would still feel an obligation to attend to the treatment.
“Supervisor Antonovich expects a very long and lively debate at the Board of Supervisors’ hearing come Tuesday,” Hickling said.