A local addiction-recovery program has a history of forgery, homophobia, racism and coercion, former employees say

Pathway's Problematic Preachings 

A local addiction-recovery program has a history of forgery, homophobia, racism and coercion, former employees say

Siri Vikan threw herself at the chance to become a counselor for the program that she credits for saving her life.

Pathway Drug Abuse in Tucson was a satellite of the same program in Tempe that saved her from booze, drugs and jail. Neither Vikan (now Campbell) nor other former counselors questioned the program's teachings, even when they were told that African Americans weren't as good as whites, or that being gay was a symptom of addiction, or that victims of rape and molestation had only themselves to blame. These opinions were the gospel preached by their savior, Bob Meehan, an addiction-recovery guru who founded a complex web of active programs in Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Colorado and North Carolina.

Pathway Drug Abuse Program operates only in Arizona, with its main office in Tempe, and a satellite at 3450 S. Broadmont Drive on Tucson's southside.

Vikan's allegiance began to crack, she said, after she saw a counselor throw a tennis ball at the genitals of a male client in Tucson. Her complaints about the incident were swept under the rug; that's when she woke up.

Particularly disturbing for Vikan and five other former Pathway employees willing to go on the record--two of whom asked that their names not be used--was the forging of documents that showed counselors with Pathway had the state-required amount of training, even though they did not.

Looking back, Vikan and other several others say that forging documents is just one disturbing element of working in a program founded by Meehan--a man who has repeatedly clashed with authorities and associates through more than three decades of addiction counseling--and his son-in-law, Clint Stonebraker, who technically owns Pathway, according to state records. After putting up with the racism, homophobia, coercion and forgery, Vikan had finally had enough.

"I just realized how fucked up everything was there," Vikan said.

Pathway Program Director Josh Azevedo said he could not comment on allegations made in this story, because Stonebraker was on vacation and "completely unreachable" for more than a week, until May 7. Tucson Weekly gave Pathway four days to respond.

Two weeks prior to deadline, the Weekly attempted to call the phone number Stonebraker listed on Pathway's facility license last year. It was disconnected, as was a nearly identical number listed in the QwestDex online phonebook with the same street address.

When asked how to reach Bob Meehan, Azevedo bluntly stated, "He no longer has anything to do with the program."

There are roughly 160 addiction-treatment programs in the Tucson area licensed by the state of Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services Division of Licensing Services. These programs range from programs such as state- and county-funded programs like COPE and CODAC for low-income substance abusers, to high-end inpatient programs at facilities such as Sierra Tucson and Cottonwood de Tucson, which can cost more than $40,000 per visit. Pathway charges up to $7,000 for outpatient treatment, and $14,000 for inpatient.

Counselors must file paperwork with the state showing they have had at least 40 hours of training every two years. Former employees Eric Balog, David Larsen, Vikan and others who have left the program confirmed that Pathway staff was instructed by management to regularly forge the forms that are required for license renewal. These forms are checked by the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners.

For instance, Vikan's final form (known as a CEU sheet), which was obtained from the Board of Medical Examiners, shows Larsen as teaching her 10 hours of coursework over two days in January 2002.

Larsen said he doesn't recall Vikan ever being in one of his classes. Vikan was more blunt: "They're all made up."

Vikan said writing up these sheets was almost a joke in the Tucson office; Vikan and Beau Hintz, another former employee, said forging was underway when they left last year.

"I think they called it, 'creative educational units,' whenever they had to do them," Vikan said.

Other Tucson counselors, who didn't want to be identified, said CEUs were filled out during staff meetings by passing them around the room.

Larsen said he did teach some courses, and he took some as well, but all were under the supervision of other counselors trained under Meehan's philosophy.

Balog confirmed that up to his departure in 1996, the forging of these forms was a regular occurrence, especially in the mid-'90s, when the program fell under scrutiny from the state.

As Balog recalls: "They had a bunch of staff come in and paint the rooms inside the office while (two administrators) sat at typewriters and just went away at certificates."

The Arizona Board of Medical Examiners Executive Director Debra Rinaudo did not return three phone calls for comment. But Board of Medical Examiners administrative services worker Pam Osborn said it's up to former counselors to bring up discrepancies to the board. The only two parties who know whether the education occurred are the ones hosting and attending, Osborn said.

"It would be up to the person telling you these are false to bring it up to the board before we start an investigation," she said. "We check to see if an accredited organization or person taught the class. If they did, we accept it."

By limiting outside influences, Meehan's program, now owned by Stonebraker, ensures that any ideas on how to treat addicted teens come from them--and no one else, according to Vikan, as well as former employees Balog, Larsen and Hintz.

Meehan himself supports this claim, as shown in a video on an anti-Meehan Web site. During a video on ontheemmis.com, a Web site that on the top of all of its pages reads "for survivors of Meehan-run drug programs," Meehan tells counselors to disregard anything they learn in other courses.

"Memorize everything he (the instructor who taught material found on the state-mandated test) has to teach you, pass the test, and forget it," said Meehan.

Counselors were also taught directly by Meehan, with enforcement by Stonebraker, to threaten clients with excommunication from the group if the suggestions weren't taken, former counselors said. They were also taught to burn in clients' minds that excommunication from the group meant an imminent relapse into addiction, which would lead to death.

David Larsen, who spent about 12 years in Meehan's now-closed California programs, as well as Pathway, finds talking to the media about his experiences as the head of Pathway difficult.

"Each time I do it, it's like I'm standing up in Bob's face, which is scary," Larsen said.

Larsen took part in an investigation for a Feb. 28 piece that aired on ABC 15 in Phoenix that received national attention. The report depicted Meehan as a racist cult leader who coerced a client, in one occasion, into forgoing medical treatment in favor of spiritual treatment. On that occasion, famed comedian Carol Burnett's stepson at first took Meehan's suggestion to believe his cancer was a spiritual disease. Jeffrey Hamilton eventually sought medical help, but later died.

In response to the report, Meehan's attorney issued a statement that said Meehan was retiring from the one-man Meehan Institute, where all Pathway counselors received training. Finally, mirroring a statement he made when he got into trouble with California authorities in 1986, Meehan said he would be severing ties with the program. In an interview conducted by the webmaster for ontheemmis.com, Stonebraker said Meehan's literature would no longer be used as part of the Pathway curriculum.

But according to Larsen and former Pathway Tempe counselor Eric Balog, Meehan kept regular contact with his California staff in 1986, despite the promise he made to the state. Balog described the control that Meehan has over patients and counselors as "blind and absolute."

A signature of Meehan's programs is his version of the 12 steps, which have been subtly altered from the design used by Alcoholics Anonymous. For instance, step three of AA states, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him."

Pathway's version states, "We realized that a Higher Power, expressed through our love for each other, could help restore us to sanity."

The key difference: Many members of AA are able to pick any god of their understanding, but Pathway clients come to depend on their peers and counselors, over which Meehan and Stonebraker had absolute control, former counselors and clients said.

David Larsen questioned from the beginning why some of Meehan's philosophies didn't mesh with society standards, beginning when he was 16 years old in the San Diego program.

"That kind of mind control works. He felt like he saved people's lives," Larsen said. "That's what he'd always say: 'I saved your life.'"

In 1996, elders of the group suggested Larsen leave his wife--a fellow counselor--because she had quit the organization. After 10 years of indoctrination of the severe consequences of ignoring these suggestions, he separated from his wife.

He said it was the worst decision he ever made.

From that point, more questions on Meehan's philosophy began percolating in Larsen's head, which led to his ultimate banishment to Meehan's Cornerstone in Denver. There, he quickly resigned.

"I was accused with fucking with the program," he said, which he compared to, "fucking with the force of the group that was the spiritual aspect of the program."

"He'd always say 'You don't need those people; you have us,'" Larsen said.

Larsen also recalls overt racism in the Pathway program.

"People haven't been able to capture how blatant the use of the word nigger (was) ..." said Larsen. "I'm ashamed I was in it."

Vikan recalls that on more than two occasions, blacks and "real Mexicans" were turned down to join the program.

"We were taught that they were lesser than whites," Vikan said. "They wouldn't get the program like we did."

Counselors and former clients added that group members who didn't embrace racist attitudes were eventually banished from the group. In a video clip on ontheemmis.com, Meehan speaks for at least two minutes on how he loves hockey, because no black people play the game.

Meehan also hammered gay clients. On one occasion during Meehan's California program days, according to Balog, a girl who said she believed she was lesbian was verbally attacked by Meehan, and then asked to leave.

"He told her to come back when she was sucking dicks," remembers Balog.

Danny Weber had come out to his parents two years before entering Step Two, the inpatient program where some clients are referred to prior to entering Pathway's outpatient counseling service. His parents were more than accepting, he said.

"My mom always told me, 'Don't listen to what anyone else tells you. Just be yourself,'" he said.

Stonebraker, however, was not so forgiving, according to Vikan. She said Weber went through a 45-minute 1-on-1 "bitch out" from Stonebraker on how he wasn't gay.

"I remember him telling me that me being gay was a figment of my disease (of addiction)," Weber said.

Weber said he and Stonebraker had two other conversations about the issue before he finally gave in.

"I figured, you know, my parents spent $14,000 for me to be here; I might as well go along with it," he said. "I figured, it's not the first time I had to act straight for someone."

Vikan, Larsen and Hintz said this forced baptism into heterosexuality was common practice.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, homosexuality is not a pathological psychiatric condition, and it can not be "treated" with therapy, according to the book, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Like Larsen, Balog was exiled from the group after challenging Meehan's dictates. Balog said he had put his life under Meehan behind him until hearing of the ABC 15 report.

When he and his wife, who was also a counselor with the group, moved down to Tucson to attempt a launch of its current operation, she became pregnant, which was against the suggestion of the group.

Elders in the group, which included Meehan and Stonebraker "suggested" Balog's wife get an abortion--or else, because management felt the two weren't ready to have a child. They decided to have their child and were excommunicated from the group.

Former client Erica Baker said she, too, experienced the same ultimatum. At the age of 17, she became pregnant by her boyfriend, who was also a Pathway client. After he brought it up to his counselor, the decision came back from Stonebraker. After being told repeatedly that leaving the group of peers they got sober with would mean relapse and death, keeping the child was not an option, Baker said.

"You don't understand: You don't leave the group," she said.

Baker said she lived with the guilt and misery of the abortion for years, until at the age of 22, she became pregnant again. She leapt at the opportunity.

"I swore to myself I'd never do that again, ever," she said.

Meehan was also reportedly unsympathetic to clients who claimed to be sexually assaulted.

"He said we chose our spiritual path to have that happen and we need to change it," Vikan said.

Counselors were trained to tell clients to take the blame and forget it happened.

Southern Arizona for Sexual Assault spokesman Michael Mandel said the international standard for treating victims is to pull them in the opposite direction of what Meehan reportedly advocated.

"The victim already does a good job of blaming themselves for the incident. It's very important for them to realize they had no control over this, only their attacker did," Mandel said. He added that victims normally spiral into depression and drug use because of self-blame.

It should be noted that former client Dan Koslowski said Vikan's statements about Pathway's views on sexual assault were taken out of context. While Koslowski never actually was in outpatient treatment, he paid for several seminars, which included Meehan. He said he remembered Meehan's statement on the issue.

"It all depended on the situation. If you were passed out or held down and it happened, fine. But if you were 16 and walking in a park at 12 o'clock in the morning, did she ask for it?" Koslowski said. "Did she put herself in a situation where she knew it could happen?"

The allegations that Pathway is skirting state regulations reflect a pattern that has followed addiction programs run by Meehan for decades.

Although the history section of Palmer Drug Abuse Program Web site doesn't mention Meehan's last name, it, along with Meehan's book, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, describes his beginnings.

Meehan, also known as the self-proclaimed "father of intervention," began his career 33 years ago when he helped found the Palmer Drug Abuse Program in Houston. Just after self-allegedly serving time in both federal and state prisons, and hopping in and out of local jails for smaller offenses, Meehan was hired as a janitor at the Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in 1971. There, the now-deceased Father Charles Bryant (known as Father Charlie to Pathway clients and counselors) helped Meehan stop using drugs. Father Charlie then asked Meehan to share his experience with a few troubled teens, and by the end of the week, he already had a small following.

A few months later, Meehan was hired as a youth counselor, and the program was formed.

In 1980, the Palmer Drug Abuse Program Board of Directors asked Meehan to step down after a slew of negative publicity depicting Meehan as arrogant and greedy, according to an ABC News transcript.

As early as 1981, Meehan opened the Sober Live-In Center Ranch in San Diego, and over the next few years, opened at least two other facilities in the area.

Heather DiZinno, who entered ranch facility in 1981 as a patient and eventually became an employee, said that although there was no running water at the Escondido location, and food was supplied for the entire facility through the generosity of concerned parents, Meehan's prescribed way of life avoiding drugs and alcohol seemed perfect.

"You're 14, and you get to stay up late and smoke cigarettes," DiZinno told the Weekly. "Who wouldn't like that?"

California Department of Social Services first visited the two Sober Live-In Center locations in July 1984 and found Meehan's program was providing care and supervision to children and adults without a license. Meehan responded to the state's findings with his intention to apply for licensing, which never happened, according to Shirley Washington, deputy director of affairs of the California Department of Social Services. After the San Diego County District Attorney's office threatened criminal charges against Meehan for operating without a license, Meehan finally applied for the proper certification, but those applications were denied due to concerns over fire safety, the water supply and sanitary conditions, Washington said in an e-mail to Tucson Weekly.

By May 1985, Meehan's attorney contacted the state to say the facilities were no longer operating, but a visit by state officials five days later found that they were still in business, Washington said.

Meehan was again warned he was in violation of state law. The facility changed hands to one of Meehan's associates, but eventually closed. DiZinno, Balog and Larsen said Meehan was still training and advising counselors under the state's radar.

Meehan also opened Freeway in San Diego, which Balog says was "pretty much the same thing as Pathway." That closed in 1986 after, as DiZinno put it, "a few former members of the group" and community provoked public outcry against the program's antisocial and cult-like behavior, which also encouraged clients to smoke cigarettes and vandalize property.

The Los Angeles Times reported in a May 1986 article that Meehan allegedly ran programs in Arizona, which were placed under investigation because of the incidents in California. Today, the Arizona Department of Health Services Licensing Division said they have no record of any investigation.

While details of Meehan's activity in other recovery programs after Sober Live-In Center Ranch and Freeway are sketchy, Balog and DiZinno said he opened and closed a slew of smaller programs in California, Arizona and Texas. The Arizona Department of Health Services has no record of such facilities.

In 1993, Pathway was formed in the Phoenix area, apparently operating under the state licensing radar for its first three years and headed by Dave Larsen. (According to both the Arizona Secretary of State's office and Department of Health Services, Pathway was licensed in 1996.)

In 1997, Pathway opened up a Tucson office, which runs as a satellite under the same license.

Meehan's Arizona involvement goes beyond the Pathway offices. Today, according to the Arizona Corporation Commission, Meehan owns Step Two under his corporation, JAD LLC. Step Two treats clients ages 13-17 from Phoenix and Tucson. According to counselors, JAD are the initials of Meehan's wife, Joy. The facility is licensed with State Department of Health Services as a level-four transitional home--a halfway house--located in a double-wide trailer southeast of Phoenix. There, clients pay $14,000 for at least 45 days of inpatient treatment; this involves being bused to Pathway's Tempe office for group therapy, similar to outpatient care, along with staffed excursions similar to what outpatient clients do on their own. After completing the inpatient program, clients are referred to Pathway's outpatient services.

After questions from the Tucson Weekly, city of Tempe officials said they are investigating another halfway house. Former employees and clients told the Weekly that Pathway was operating Step One, for adults up to age 25 who are referred by Pathway's Tucson and Tempe counselors for inpatient treatment.

Tempe officials had no record of the home being any type of group home, according to Sherri Lesser, senior planner for the city of Tempe, which requires halfway houses to be in multi-family residences. Also, during an informal investigation, Tempe Fire Department Inspector Phil Rohe said while the house had 11 beds, there was no fire safety equipment.

Rohe added that the city was coordinating an inter-department investigation.

The trouble for Step One in Tempe comes on the heels of another recent investigation by the State Department of Health Services that was triggered by the ABC 15 story.

Lead Investigator Scott Tiffany said his team, which is investigating both Step One, Step Two and Pathway, asked the organization to provide the names and contacts of people living in the Step One house, and they randomly picked people to interview. Based on those interviews, state officials determined it is only a sober place for people to live.

However, Vikan--who spent one month working there--and Hintz--who had regular contact with clients who stayed there--said 1-on-1 counseling with the in-house counselor was a regular occurrence. According to Tiffany, such individual counseling could require a license Step One does not have.

Tiffany said his team began the investigation on March 1, and its laundry list of non-compliance to behavioral health policies were delivered on March 16. Included on the list were violations involving procedures when allowing a parent or guardian to have a part in a client's treatment plan, admission, and job descriptions throughout the organization. Pathway responded with a detailed plan to correct all violations found, which includes acknowledging Step One. According to Hintz, Larsen and Vikan, counselors were told to tell the state it doesn't exist.

Since Pathway submitted its corrective plan, no sanctions would be placed, Tiffany said.

After the TV report was released, the Department of Health Services was inundated with more than 100 calls, according to Arizona Department of Health Services Division of Licensing Services Deputy Director Lisa Wynn. Within the first two days after the report aired, Wynn said 65 to 75 percent of the calls were positive toward Pathway and Meehan.

Tiffany said he was not aware of any of the allegations clients and counselors brought up in this story. On March 11, he and Wynn said their department had not researched Meehan's history in California.

Despite Meehan's announced retirement from of his one-man training institute as a result of the ABC 15 report, all counselors who were in training there at the time of the closure have somehow since been graduated to counselor status, and were in the process of becoming certified by the state.

Meanwhile, in the ontheemmis.com interview, Stonebraker said anyone wishing to become a counselor for Pathways, now that Meehan has retired, would be referred to the Georgia Addiction Counselors Association.

But GACA President Sue Otts said her organization has never provided the type of training required to meet the standards for addiction-treatment certification.

"Training like the Meehan Institute isn't up to us ... that's always been the responsibility of the trainee," Otts said.

History has shown that Pathway staffers are adept at skirting state regulations, counselors and clients said.

"There definitely was a whole fuck-the-white-man mentality when I was there," former counselor Hintz said. "Bob's motto was, 'they (the state) don't know sobriety; we do.'"

Hintz, 24, hadn't finished the required 4,000 hours of hands-on training when he decided to leave Pathway. Hintz started as a client in Tucson, and after starting the training process, he was assigned to Pathway's sister program, Insight, in Georgia, then Pathway in Tempe.

It was toward the end of his training that he realized everyone else in the world wasn't as "fucked up" as Meehan and Stonebraker said.

"I just needed to go," said Hintz, who has spent more than nine months away from Pathway and has since moved back to Tucson. "Some of those tools we use to label things in life weren't exactly working anymore. Now I look at it and I'm like, 'oh my God, I was such a fucking asshole for what I did to kids.'"

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