Hole in California Law Allows Sex Offenders to Become Addiction Counselors

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    NEWSLETTERS

    FILE PHOTO

    By Christina Jewett and Will Evans
    Center for Investigative Reporting

    “Sexual psychopath.” That was the diagnosis a court-ordered psychiatrist gave Donald Robert Hoffman after he was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old boy in 1965. Hoffman, the psychiatrist determined, was a danger to others.
    But that history didn’t stop Hoffman from becoming a state-registered drug and alcohol counselor decades later, even though he had to register as a sex offender once he was released from prison in 1979.
    Hoffman lost his counselor status only after three residents of the San Francisco rehab center where he worked told investigators in 2008 that Hoffman had plied them with drugs and alcohol and made aggressive sexual advances. Hoffman was fired, but was never charged over those allegations. Hedied two years later at 67.
    The case demonstrates a hole in state law: There is nothing to prevent sex offenders and others with criminal records from becoming alcohol and drug counselors in California, even though such roles give them direct contact with people, including teens, at their most vulnerable.
    A state Senate oversight report scheduled to be released today found that at least 23 sex offenders have been approved since 2005 to work as drug and alcohol counselors in California.
    They include a Los Angeles man convicted of 110 counts of lewd acts on a child for molesting four children he was baby-sitting and one convicted for having sex with the 12-year-old daughter of his father’s girlfriend. A third Los Angeles man registered as a counselor after serving time for forcing a 12-year-old boy to perform a sex act. Soon after his release, he put on a ski mask and robbed two women at gunpoint.
    The Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes was able to confirm that at least a dozen of the sex offenders actually worked as counselors. Its findings show that California is more rigorous in screening veterinarians and nearly all other health professionals than it is in checking the backgrounds of addiction counselors.
    Anyone can register with one of seven private counselor-certifying agencies in the state to be a drug or alcohol counselor. Registration gives participants a veneer of official approval until they meet the requirements to be a certified counselor. Requirements include a year’s worth of full-time work and 155 hours of alcohol and drug education.
    California and Pennsylvania are the only two states among the nation’s largest 15 that do not perform background checks or screen alcohol and drug rehab counselors, the report says. It calls on lawmakers to renew efforts to put the state in charge of overseeing the state’s 36,000 addiction counselors.  
    The state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs sponsored a bill in 2009 to do just that, but it died. It would have banned sex offenders from becoming registered or certified counselors.
    Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, said he carried the bill in hopes of professionalizing the field.
    “I think the public assumes that licensing and certification will protect them from someone like (Hoffman), from being in that position, but that’s not the case always,” DeSaulnier said.
    Currently, the alcohol and drug department, which will be absorbed by the Department of Health Care Services this summer, oversees the seven agencies that have the authority to grant certification. The state department also investigates complaints about counselors.
    Although acting Director Michael Cunningham testified in favor of the 2009 bill, the department does not have a position on whether sex offenders and other criminals should be allowed to be counselors, according to Millicent Tidwell, acting deputy director.
    She said the agency “is examining the current statutes and regulations in order to address improvements, including ways to provide greater levels of accountability and oversight.”
    The Senate report highlights other lapses in California’s oversight. Counselor-certifying groups have no way of detecting arrests or convictions that occur after someone becomes a counselor. The report cites a half-dozen examples of active counselors who have been convicted of drug offenses, drunken driving or battery while treating rehab clients.
    The report also details how health professionals who lose their license in another field can be certified as drug and alcohol counselors. Such counselors include a former nurse who stole the identities of patients at a San Bernardino County hospital and a former doctor who prescribed potent medications over the Internet.
    Unlike California, other states check a national database of disciplinary actions before certifying counselors, the report says.
    Case illustrates possible consequences
    Hoffman’s case underscores the seriousness of the problem. He faced little scrutiny before complaints arose over his conduct at the drug rehab center where he worked, Freedom from Alcohol and Drugs in San Francisco.
    One man who testified against the program at an administrative hearing in Oakland said Hoffman picked him up after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 2006 and drove him to a bar.
    The man, identified only as B.B. in hearing records, said Hoffman assured him that they were just “a couple of guys blowing off some steam” and encouraged him to order drinks. After the man drank a couple of rum-and-cola cocktails, Hoffman drove to pick up a six-pack of beer.
     
    B.B. testified that Hoffman took him back to his bedroom late at night, where he kissed B.B. before B.B. “passed out.” B.B. awoke with his pants undone and uncertain of what had happened.
    He also said he did not report the events to the program’s executive director, afraid that he’d be evicted from the residential program and end up homeless.
    Two other former program residents also spoke to a state inspector. One said Hoffman urged him to drink and sought oral sex. The other said Hoffman gave him crack cocaine. Intoxicated, he said, he and Hoffman would have sex on the premises of Freedom from Alcohol and Drugs.
    Administrative Law Judge Perry O. Johnson stripped the program of its state license in 2008.
    Douglas Watson still runs Freedom from Alcohol and Drugs as a cluster of “clean and sober” houses on the western rim of San Francisco. Such residences do not require a state license.
    Watson said a predecessor hired Hoffman as a house manager. Watson said he knew about Hoffman’s history but worried that he could be sued if he fired Hoffman.
    “I don’t feel like I got a fair shake,” Watson said.
    Watson also said he thinks allegations against Hoffman might have been exaggerated.
    Hoffman was 22 when he was accused of forcing a 13-year-old boy into his car, taking him to the beach in Pacifica and molesting him at knifepoint, San Mateo County court records say.
    Hoffman told a psychiatrist that the fondling was consensual and admitted to choking the boy to prevent him from telling anyone.
    The Stanford University psychiatry professor determined Hoffman was a “sexual psychopath” predisposed to sexual offenses “to a degree that makes him dangerous to the health and safety of others.”
    In 2007, the California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources, one of the state-approved agencies, registered Hoffman as a counselor.
    David Peters, director of external affairs, said the Sacramento-based group has supported past legislation to ban sex offenders.
    “Lots of people can become really great counselors and have some criminal records in their past,” Peters said. “We feel we need the state to define legal eligibility.”

    Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes confirmed that at least a dozen sex offenders performed work as counselors.

    This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.
    The independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting is the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.cironline.org. The reporters can be reached at cjewett@cironline.org and wevans@cironline.org.