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State Jail Rehab Allegedly Tried to Pass Mentally Ill Inmates as Addicts

Photo: Mary Tuma, License: N/A

Mary Tuma

Ex-counselors with a substance abuse program at Dominguez State Jail claim inmates went untreated for mental illness

After months of frustration, Melissa Cantu felt pushed to her ethical brink. A therapist for more than 10 years, Cantu’s most recent job as a state contracted substance abuse counselor for a rehabilitation program at Dominguez State Jail left her torn and scared for not only herself but the inmates she was tasked with aiding.

Cantu and others allege they were forced to doctor numbers on inmate assessments by downplaying serious psychological issues and inflating drug and alcohol dependency. Told to rig the playing field in the name of “keeping up capacity,” Cantu knew the unethical request by supervisors at rehab program Turning Point Inc. could jeopardize her license to practice therapy and worse, put already vulnerable inmates, undiagnosed and untreated, at higher risk.

After constantly breaking out in hives, unable to sleep and battling what she describes as an “abusive workplace,” Cantu ditched her compromising job and never looked back.

“I have to get out before it gets really out of control,” she told herself before making an exit. After giving her two-week notice, her Turning Point supervisor demanded she leave even earlier.

The therapist is one in a slew of employees who fled the program and now want to tell their story with the hopes the jail contractor will be compelled to reform.

Employees claim they were pressured to falsify Addiction Severity Index (ASI) scores—measurements of the level of dependency and abuse of drugs and/or alcohol—to show inmates as troubled substance abusers while minimizing their psychiatric status, resulting in a population unable to access the proper mental health care.

Many of the questions on the ASI work on a rating point scale, from zero meaning “no treatment necessary” to a very severe and problematic nine-point grade. No matter what—these employees say they were told—do not score inmates over a ‘one’ in the psychiatric component of the assessment.

“Some clearly had anxiety, possible schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder,” said Cantu. “But if they had a history of mental disorders, they wouldn’t get the right treatment for it. Because if the [psychiatric] score came back as a five you’d have to go back and change it to a one or a two.”

Cantu isn’t the only one coming out to expose the program’s alleged unethical practices. Mark VanHudson*, a former counselor with Turning Point, corroborates the claims, saying he too was forced to manipulate ASI scores. The final straw came for the counselor when an inmate described in detail how he would commit suicide—the evidently disturbed inmate, says VanHudson, was barred from being classified as mentally ill. After just a few days on the job, VanHudson quit in disgust.

“A significant number of these people clearly manifested severe mental illness, some diagnosable and recognizable on the spot. Some with suicidal tendencies,” he said. “Directors instructed us to ignore them—they are asking the counselor to ignore literally life and death indications.”

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