For years, Parallax Programs Inc. has received government-funded support to help people overcome drug and alcohol addiction.
A key part of the treatment is supposed to come from properly trained and educated counselors with state credentials, according to state regulations.
But Parallax has had a habit of using unqualified people — some, clients themselves or right out of treatment — to lead group sessions in recent years, according to interviews and written allegations provided to the Parallax board and investigators with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
SRS is conducting an investigation after receiving reports from former Parallax staff and clients of alleged improprieties at Parallax. The nonprofit organization gets city, state and federal funding and provides a wide range of treatment services.
Many of the allegations involve Milt Fowler, the 65-year-old Parallax CEO and founder who retired Tuesday after leading Parallax for nearly 40 years. Meanwhile, Parallax is under interim management, board president Danny Bardezbain said.
Fowler has not returned messages seeking comment. Bardezbain has for the most part declined to comment, citing the ongoing SRS investigation.
In recent years, some therapeutic group sessions, often averaging 20 people, were supposed to be "co-facilitated." That meant the groups should have been led by a qualified counselor and a counselor's assistant or by two counselors, a former Parallax counselor told The Eagle.
"I rarely saw that," said the former counselor, who worked at Parallax in recent years and who asked not to be named because of fear of retaliation.
"There just wasn't enough people. There wasn't enough help."
Without proper training and credentials, treatment can be ineffective or harmful, the former counselor said.
Substance abuse counselors deal with a particularly vulnerable population.
"These are people who basically don't know how to live a life without drugs and alcohol," the former counselor said. They are starting over when they begin treatment.
Counseling is not simply a matter of telling someone to stop using drugs and alcohol, the former counselor said. "It's a process."
An absence of qualified counselors at group sessions "occurred more often than not," said another former counselor, who worked at Parallax from 2006 to 2009. In some cases, clients themselves were leading other clients in counseling groups, said the counselor, who asked not to be named because of privacy and safety concerns.
'Saved my life'
Not everyone has complaints.
One former Parallax client told The Eagle that she received such good treatment from her counselor at Parallax in 2007 and 2008 that it inspired her to go to college and become a counselor herself.
She said her counselor showed "sincerity, caring."
"He never, ever turned his back on us. He was there for us, no matter what. He's still there. ... I can call him and talk to him any time I want to."
She got an associate's degree, became a certified counselor and got a job at a treatment center outside of Wichita.
"Parallax saved my life," she said.
"And they are why I am who I am today. I went from being a bad addict, living on the street, and now I have my own office. I'm a counselor, and I'm a totally different person."
In a written statement provided to SRS investigators last month, a former Parallax client wrote that she came to the Wichita substance abuse program in 2005 seeking help with her addictions. She continued to receive treatment and to have relapses through 2006 and was working in a Parallax coffee shop in 2007.
She wrote that she had graduated from outpatient treatment and was thinking about going to college to become an addictions counselor when Fowler, the Parallax CEO, needed someone to fill in as a counselor.
She wrote in her statement: "I started filling in as a counselor on occasion for the Saturday group and the Sunday women's group but was not in school yet, (and was not certified to do any groups, but Milt told me to do the groups and he would sign off on them) but I was excited."
She added that although she didn't have credentials, after each group session she was writing reports — known as data assessment plans or DAPs — of what she felt the clients gained from each session.
"So during this time I was 'dapping' after groups, Milt did it at first but then taught me how to dap, once again even though I was not a credentialed counselor," she wrote in a statement.
She added, "I think I ran my first group in January or February 2008."
At some point, she wrote, "Milt had me take over the parenting group on Tuesday nights. Because his counselor that was facilitating the group was leaving to go to another job."
False billing alleged
A former counselor who worked at Parallax from 2006 to 2009 has given the Parallax board and SRS investigators a written statement describing the situation she saw:
"Non-credentialed and untrained substance abuse counselors facilitated individual and group sessions, unsupervised."
She wrote that the clients affected came under state or Medicaid programs where "specific credentialing is contractually required for all provider reimbursement.
"Non-credentialed staff (the majority of staff during my employment) were instructed by the credentialed CEO ... to leave client claim submission forms in the CEO's mailbox for his signature representing to insurance providers the credentialed CEO was present in these sessions when he was not. This false billing submission procedure occurred on a daily basis in both Parallax treatment facilities during my entire Parallax employment and all non-credentialed facilitators were instructed by the CEO in staff meetings to comply with this fraudulent activity," her statement said.
The same former counselor raised concerns in her statement about a man she said was working as an outpatient counselor at Parallax in 2009 even though he was on the state sex offender registry because of a 2001 conviction of indecent contact with a child.
Current state standards do not prohibit someone on the sex offender registry from serving as a drug and alcohol counselor, although such a person would be prohibited from providing services to an adolescent, said Stacy Chamberlain, clinical services coordinator in the Addiction and Prevention Services Unit of SRS.
Also, separate from state regulations, funding entities might have their own prohibitions, Chamberlain said.
The state is now proposing revised standards requiring a program to conduct background checks on all employees before someone is hired — to ensure they have not been convicted of a crime against a person, she said. A program could seek a waiver depending on circumstances, say, for example, the person's crime occurred 30 years ago, Chamberlain said.
As of Jan. 1, 2004, people becoming counselors have had to meet state credentials that include at least an associate's degree, including 27 hours of specified classes dealing with drug and alcohol addiction.
New licensing requirements for drug and alcohol counselors will take effect July 1, 2011. Basically, the new regulations will eventually require at least a bachelor's degree.
The goal of the new regulations is to bring more oversight and accountability for drug and alcohol counselors, said Phyllis Gilmore, executive director of the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board.