LOS ANGELES (CN) — California accused two dozen people and several businesses on Tuesday of operating unlicensed rehabilitation clinics that use dangerous methods to treat Spanish-speaking people — and may have contributed to the deaths of as many as 45 of them.
At least two of the 45 deaths in the Los Angeles area have been declared homicides, the state says in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Falsely claiming to be affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, the clinics “lure clients into their illegal facilities and then subject these clients to dangerous, violent rehabilitation practices,” including denying them any water during a three-day detoxification, shoving a padded spoon into their mouths if they have seizures rather than seeking medical help, and hogtying clients who try to leave.
“These are just a few of the extremely dangerous and life-threatening practices defendants are implementing under the guise of A.A. that need to be enjoined,” the state says.
A basic principle of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it is not allied with any outside institution.
The lead defendant is a company called Corriente California, or California Current, founded by defendant Pablo A. Zamora. The other 23 individual defendants and five businesses entity defendants, as well as the dozen or so clinics named in the lawsuit, all have “a connection or affiliation” with Corriente California, according to the state.
The company maintains clinics in downtown and south Los Angeles and a few outlying suburbs, and a central office in El Monte, east of the city.
Plaintiff Jennifer Kent is the director of the California Department of Health Care Services, which “has the sole authority to license adult alcoholism or drug abuse recovery or treatment facilities” in the state.
Kent’s department investigated a number of the clinics in 2014-15 and won settlements and injunctions against the property owners.
“Two years later, the Department became aware that additional unlicensed facilities were operating in a similar manner,” Kent says.
The state also learned of increased deaths associated with unlicensed clinics. A journal article by the Los Angeles Coroner’s office found 35 such deaths from 2003 to 2014. Since 2014, the coroner has tallied an additional 11 deaths, with one ruled a homicide, according to the lawsuit.
That patient died of asphyxia and chest compressions after he had seizures after a clinic’s “detoxification” system.
Kent’s department this year launched another investigation into several unlicensed clinics that target Latinos. All were similar to the ones shut down in 2015.
“All of these facilities had rolled-up bedding, sundries, a detoxification room, a makeshift kitchen stocked with food, a makeshift bathroom, and schedules for alcoholism and/or drug abuse treatment ‘therapy’ throughout the day,” as well as signs claiming Alcoholics Anonymous affiliations, according to the lawsuit.
When new clients would arrive intoxicated, they had to spend three days without water in a detoxification room, called a colchones, “some of which are filthy and smell of urine.” If the clients had tremors, seizures or convulsions, “the guardias (guards) insert a spoon in their mouth, tap their bare feet with a wooden spoon, physically restrain them, and/or rub their nose, eyes, or body with onions,” Kent says in the complaint.
At one clinic, investigators saw a man with rope burns from being hogtied. At another, 15 or 20 clients “ran out the door to escape” when investigators arrived. Police had to intervene at a third clinic when staff dragged a man back into the facility.
While the 2015 lawsuit targeted the landowners where clinics operated, the new complaint also targets the clinics’ owners and officials.
That’s because “when a court enjoins or an agency cites one unlicensed facility, the Corriente California defendants and/or the real property defendants do not cease their illegal operation,” the state says. “Instead, they relocate, rename, or recreate the unlicensed facility and continue their illegal conduct.”
For instance, a clinic called Grupo Condesa, or Countess Group, was shut down in 2015. It soon reopened down the street under the new name Grupo San Francisco de Asis, according to the complaint.
The department seeks injunctions barring the defendants from operating unlicensed facilities and a $200 per day fine for keeping a facility running after it has been ordered shut down.