DRUNK, BROKE: DUI rehab techniques questioned
November 21, 2008
PART TWO: Offending the offenders
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
If you’re one of the thousands of people arrested this year and charged with driving while intoxicated in San Luis Obispo County, be encouraged by the knowledge that the entire judicial system and a parade of state and county agencies and officials share a keen interest in your rehabilitation.
But pay close attention during the mandatory treatment classes that you likely will be attending, or you and your wallet might get slapped. Some classroom attendees allege that a longtime counselor, or “specialist,” in the county’s Drug and Alcohol Services’ DUI program uses education techniques that often become physical. Several class members interviewed for this article said they share a concern that quality and effectiveness of the educational program is being diminished.
“Those classes shouldn’t be counterproductive,” said one program enrollee, Kenneth Breig, 50, of Paso Robles. “People should be able to go to them without feeling intimidated. I don’t feel intimidated. But the younger people do.”
Breig is completing the first-offender program, and he and others who have been through the program claim they have witnessed behavior by the specialist they believe is not only inappropriate, but has a negative impact on the attitudes of the program’s “clients.”
“He can’t keep his hands off people,” said Breig. “He’ll come up behind a person he thinks isn’t paying close enough attention and hit them in the back of the head.”
All of those interviewed by CalCoastNews identified the specialist as Dennis Shehan, a veteran who works in the Atascadero office.
Shehan said he was told not to comment on the matter and referred other questions to the program director, Dr. Starr Graber.
Dylan, 22, of Paso Robles, echoed Breig’s assertions. Dylan asked that his last name not be used.
“He prowls around the room, and if you even close your eyes he’ll come up behind you and abruptly shake you,” said Dylan of Shehan. “He tries to make people feel stupid. People are always nervous around him, and he belittles everyone.” Dylan said the specialist “locks the door right at the start of class and if you’re late, you start over and pay for the missed class all over again. He acts like all he wants to do is make money for the program.” Program rules call for a five-minute grace at the start of class.
“This is really a good opportunity for people to get the message [about driving under the influence],”said Dylan. “But Shehan’s conduct makes it so hard… he ruins the chance for anyone to get anything good out of his class.”
Dylan said the specialist’s conduct has been quietly discussed by others in his class.
Nearly a year ago, a third individual gave similar versions of Shehan’s physical interaction with clients in an interview with a CalCoastNews reporter. The man asked to remain unidentified because “I don’t want any trouble with that guy again.” He also said his participation in the DUI program was revealed to others in the community by the specialist during a golf game. When the man asked Shehan about the purported privacy breach, he said the specialist claimed ignorance and replied, “I play golf with a lot of people.”
One man who went through the county program years ago said the specialist “was doing the same damned things back then.”
Other counseling professionals contacted by CalCoastNews agreed that any kind of touching in such classroom settings was “inappropriate under any circumstances” and a violation of ethics.
Breig pointed out wording in the program’s literature articulating “clients’ rights”: Individuals are to “be free from humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, verbal or physical abuse from staff or program participants,” reads one pamphlet.
Graber said that each client receives information at the beginning of the program which explains the filing of written grievances. Such a complaint normally would first go to the specialist, then to the program supervisor, “and then to me, the division manager.”
“I think resolution of this might have been faster if it had come through me,” said Graber. “I’m speaking only generally that certainly this is not the kind of behavior we would tolerate. We have the highest of professional standards, and we would want to investigate and take appropriate action.”
San Luis Obispo County law enforcement traditionally notches more DUI arrests per capita than almost any other county in the state. But the first-rate service doesn’t stop there. After being stopped, questioned and arrested by the law, then jailed, bailed and prosecuted, DUI suspects can expect to face mandatory re-education in safe and sober driving skills. Most people convicted of first offenses, as well as court-approved “second chance” cases, will find themselves enrolled in a series of classes. How long the program lasts, and how much it will eventually cost, is directly related to the length of the offender’s DUI record.
The classes are conducted countywide by a cadre of nine specialists working in four locales; each specialist carries a caseload of about 100 “clients,” according to DUI Program Supervisor Frank Warren. “They are often called counselors, but technically, they are classified as specialists.”
Specialists earn $3,300 to $5,600 monthly. A successful applicant will have advanced degrees in human or social services and alcohol counseling experience; be a vocational or registered nurse, psychiatric technician, or certified counselor; or have extensive practical experience in drug or alcohol counseling.
The primary job of a specialist is to provide “alcohol and drug related prevention, intervention, or treatment services” for people assigned to their classrooms.
In that capacity, a specialist “will help conduct client assessments and diagnoses; [and] develop and use treatment plans and recovery education-oriented activities for individuals and groups,” according to the county Web site job description.
Duties of the specialists vary, said Warren, and so do their backgrounds – although each must meet state and county standards to qualify for the positions. About half of the specialists have their own personal drug or alcohol histories, he added, but “such experience is not mandatory. It is certainly not a prerequisite. It’s the training and experience after recovery begins that is important.”
Specialists wield substantial power over their clients. Just the slightest suggestion that an attendee has been drinking alcohol or using drugs will result in immediate dismissal and referral back to court. If probation is involved, it is revoked. After four absences, offenders are returned to court. Failure to pay all fees calls for immediate dismissal, also, although officials say they will try work with people who have financial problems.
Most program participants will grudgingly admit that post-arrest punishment, including class time under the thumb of the specialists, is not supposed to be a pleasant experience. The program can be expensive, costing each between $300 and more than $2,000, depending on the severity of a DUI record. More than 6,000 people will go though the program in this county this year.
About half of the state’s counties have private programs. SLO’s is one of only several that are self-sustaining, with an annual budget of about $1.5 million and reimbursement through client fees of 97 percent of that, according to program officials.