BATAVIA — Jeffrey Williamson hoped that a court-ordered drug treatment program would help his 15-year-old son, Justin, who had been experimenting with marijuana.
Instead, he said his son watched popular movies and played board games during three-hour treatment meetings for teens at the Clermont Recovery Center.
He did not receive counseling.
“I would say, 'How was it, buddy? Did it help you out?'" Williamson said. "'No, Dad, all we did is watch a movie and the counselor sat at his desk with his feet up, talking to his wife on the phone.’ He watched a regular movie that he could have sat right here at the house and watched. And then the next meeting I took him … he did the same thing. Took him again, same thing.”
Williamson brought his complaints about the Clermont Recovery Center, or CRC, to a juvenile court judge, probation officer and the center itself. He stood outside the Batavia facility holding protest signs, handing out fliers and writing down the stories of other families who he said had similar experiences. He gave those statements, written in his own words, to the Clermont County Juvenile Court in July.
“The system punishes your kid for not doing well. But at the same time the system they’re using is broken,” Williamson said. “It doesn’t work and they’re ignoring it, like it's nothing.”
Williamson said other families are too scared to speak up publicly about their complaints. He also suggested the teen substance abuse therapy sessions may target low-income families who get their insurance from Medicaid.
“Every single one of these kids are low income," Williamson said, pointing to a complex behind the yard of his Bethel home. "Half the kids over in CRC live right back here in these low-income apartments.”
The Ohio Department of Medicaid contracts with Williamson’s insurance provider, Molina Healthcare, to manage Medicaid for some low-income families. There is no limit on outpatient drug treatment sessions for teens, Williamson said, based on what a CRC supervisor told him, and his own insurance records.
But Clermont County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge James Shriver said he has only heard one parent complain about their child’s experience at the Clermont Recovery Center. He declined an interview, citing judicial rules that prohibit him from speaking about a specific case. But in a written statement to WCPO, Shriver shared his positive experiences with Clermont Recovery Center.
“In review hearings, I continue to receive several positive reports stating that the youth are doing very well in completing their Seven Challenges Journal, processing their use and developing mechanisms to prevent relapse,” Shriver wrote. “The youth appear to be learning and enjoying the program.”
A spokeswoman for Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services, a nonprofit which operates the CRC, said privacy rules prevent her from addressing a particular complaint.
But she provided general information to WCPO through a written statement.
The agency has been providing outpatient care for more than 20 years through its teen substance abuse disorder program. It uses the Seven Challenges curriculum, is endorsed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and requires a yearly review, according to the statement.
“The curriculum is designed to create an open, supportive environment for youth to share their experiences, feelings and thoughts and use multiple modes of interaction such as relevant games, and videos to spark dialogue and engage youth who are participating in the program,” according to the statement.
But Williamson doesn’t believe that happened for his son.
“The judge is asking these kids why they aren’t clean off marijuana, but yet the program that he’s sending them to isn’t doing their job," Williamson said. "It isn’t providing the counseling.”
Troubles began for Williamson’s son, Justin, nearly two years ago when he was 13. Police arrested him for breaking and entering on the porch of an abandoned house with some neighborhood friends.
Later a court-ordered assessment recommended treatment for mild marijuana use, and two behavioral diagnoses. After probation violations and a brief stint in the juvenile jail, the court ordered him to CRC for an outpatient recovery program, according to court documents.
Instead of improving, Williamson said, his son got worse after attending CRC sessions.
In an interview with WCPO, Justin Williamson said other teens in the program actively talk about their frequent use of serious drugs.
“Everyone in that CRC group does stuff other than marijuana," Justin Williamson said. "They do crack, cocaine, anything. One of the kids randomly said that he was going home and he was going to do meth later, or smoke meth out of a blunt. They would say it openly, out in the open. The teachers don’t care.”
Justin Williamson said he attended five or six meetings at CRC, which are each three hours long. During that time, he said, he never received drug treatment, group therapy or a journal to write in.
WCPO also spoke with a 16-year-old boy who attended drug treatment meetings at CRC. WCPO does not ordinarily use anonymous sources. However, WCPO staff members use anonymous sources in rare circumstances when it is the only way to obtain information vital to the public good.
The boy and his family were concerned that if they spoke publicly, it would negatively impact his criminal case. He said he got in trouble for a fight at school, so the court sent him to CRC after he failed a drug test while on probation.
“Before, when the other counselor was there, all we did was watch movies,” he said.
Now that a new counselor is leading the teen sessions at CRC, he said, they have occasionally written in journals, made pancakes, and created a chart about their best and worst lives. But he said they still watch movies and play board games.
His grandmother said she also has concerns about CRC.
“They’re not learning. There’s no format,” she told WCPO. “They just throw them in a room and put on a movie. It’s not helping him. He needs to know about recovery.”
But Shriver said he has a good opinion of CRC and its many programs. Many people who appear in his courtroom attend the Clermont Recovery Center because they live nearby and have easy access to treatment.
“Traditional approaches to working with adolescents and youth with substance use disorders have been for the most part unsuccessful,” Shriver said. “Telling someone they just need to quit does not work and often leads to further defiance or increased dishonesty. Most young individuals do not voluntarily come to treatment of their own free will, but attend because of court orders.”
The Seven Challenges curriculum, which CRC uses for some teens, includes interactive games, videos, movies and food to establish rapport with participants and engage them in treatment, Shriver said.
“Working through the Seven Challenges helps the individual to understand what needs they are meeting by using drugs, what harm they are causing, what risks they are taking, and what it entails to make changes,” Shriver said. “The goal is to raise consciousness, inspire hope, and motivate informed, internally driven, sincere decisions to change.”
But Williamson said he spoke to several other families who were also critical of the program.
“These statements are from parents and kids that are in different classes, different counselors, different times, and they’re all almost exact," Williamson said. "I mean they all tell basically the same story.”
Many of those statements say the teens ate pizza, played games, and watched movies that sometimes were related to drugs, and sometimes were not. Many described a counselor who did not pay attention to them.
A teenage girl who had been attending CRC sessions for three months told Williamson: “The counselor that was working there didn’t seem like he should work there. He would just turn on the movie and sit in his seat and eat,” according to statements he filed with juvenile court on July 7.
A teenage boy who has been at CRC for a year told Williamson: “When I go to CRC we sit down and we talk for about 10 minutes and then after that the whole time we’re just watching a movie while the teacher just sits on his phone,” according to statements he filed with juvenile court on July 7.
A spokesperson for GCBHS described the treatment process as “working to meet them where they are, to provide them with opportunities to develop strategies and skills, so that hopefully we can shift the path away from lifelong struggles and the consequences that arise from substance use.
“Often times, families in this program face barriers and lack resources which make supporting their youth in intensive treatment a lot to juggle. Sometimes the meals and snacks we provide are the only food these adolescents have during the day,” according to GCBHS’ statement.
In recent weeks, Williamson said, his son is doing much better. He stopped going to CRC and switched to in-home counseling through a different agency. He is still attending monthly review hearings in juvenile court.
“I want this program to work for my son. That’s all I want,” Williamson told Shriver at a July 7 court hearing.