About every two weeks, someone dies in a California Drug Rehab Facility - not so surprising considering many clients are fighting addictions to dangerous drugs.
But an NBC Bay Area Investigation into the case of a 32-year-old man, Nathan Eaton, reveals that when someone dies at a facility, family members and other clients seeking treatment there may never know what happened.
When Nathan Eaton arrived at Center Point Inc. in San Rafael, California, he'd been battling addiction since he was 16 years old. His father, Fernin Eaton, has worked with people in drug recovery for years and wonders how he missed the signs of addiction in his son. “We noticed Nathan being more defensive, somewhat withdrawn,” he said, “but really there were no overt signs. We just - if there were, we missed them.”
After high school, Nathan tried to beat his addictions during numerous admissions to rehab facilities.
He went first to treatment centers in his hometown of Baton Rouge, and later in Houston. His father and mother did their best to keep up, frequently driving to Houston. “It was just a five-hour drive. We could go to participate in the family meetings.” said Fernin. At 32, Nathan arrived at Center Point Inc. It seemed to Fernin that rehab was finally working for his son. “This time it was really taking hold,” he said.
Rehab Was Starting to Take Hold
NBC Bay Area spoke to a resident who was with Nathan at Center Point. He asked not to be identified, so his name has been changed.
“Our group was really close,” said Richard, “and there was a lot of groundbreaking stuff happening. It was really more the clients than the staff doing that.”
Richard credits the time he spent at Center Point - and the guys who were trying to quit with him - for helping him break his addiction. He says he’s drug free today.
A Toothache - And Some Methadone
On the morning of March 8, 2013, Nathan was complaining of a toothache. According to Center Point’s logs, and a “support buddy” who went with him, Nathan left Center Point to visit the dentist - one mile away. Nathan then changed his mind and instead went to an AT&T store nearby to use a free phone. He arranged to meet his girlfriend. They dropped off Nathan's support buddy at his girlfriend's house and then went to the park. When Nathan returned to Center Point later that afternoon, his friends could tell he was high.
“You could tell he was under the influence. Face flushed, eyes were pin-pointed, pupil was super small, eyes were lightly red, face red,” said Richard.
Alex, another resident whose name has been changed, said, “His eyes were dilated, and he had very blue eyes, so it was very easy to see that he was high.”
His friends told Nathan he should tell the staff he’d taken drugs. Nathan agreed and told the program manager that his girlfriend gave him some 10 milligram methadone pills. He said he took two of them, felt nothing - and then took three more, according to Center Point's logs.
Nathan's girlfriend later told police she never gave him any drugs and that he must have somehow gotten the prescription pills out of her purse while she was charging her cellphone.
Detoxification Without a License
State records show Center Point had no license for detox, so the correct protocol was to send Nathan to a detox facility or an emergency room, where he could be treated and monitored by trained medical staff. California laws require treatment facilities to refer patients to a higher level of care and decline admission to patients who are intoxicated unless they are licensed to provide detox services.
Instead, the staff consulted with Center Point’s Vice-President Mark Hering, and the decision was made to allow Nathan to stay at the rehab facility. It was also agreed that someone would check on Nathan every 30 minutes throughout the night.
According to the night manager’s logs, that didn’t happen either. At 7:05 a.m., Nathan was found unresponsive in his bed by the staff.
The next morning, Center Point staff called Nathan’s father with shocking news. “They said Nathan had died of a drug overdose while he was in this facility, and I had just been back to Baton Rouge two weeks from trying to see him in California,” Fernin said, choking back tears.
For the next three years, Fernin Eaton believed what he’d been told -- that Nathan died of an accidental overdose. But then a call from a stranger changed everything.
"Something Was Wrong"
“I knew something was wrong,” said Paul Schraps, whose son, Apollo, was also at Center Point seeking treatment. “He woke up one morning and went to his friend's room next door and found him on his back, and he was dead with vomit on the bed beside him,” said Schraps, adding that his son struggled with Nathan’s death. “My son was injured about this psychologically."
Schraps runs an organization called Parent-Teen Bridges, which helps parents cope with their children’s addictions. He spent six months investigating Nathan’s death. “I tried the treatment facility and the coroner’s office, but due to confidentiality nothing was available. I didn’t even know Nathan’s last name.”
Paul thought he’d hit a dead end, but then came a chance meeting with a young man who had been at Center Point, and recognized Paul from visits he’d paid to his son. The man had been friends with Nathan and knew his last name.
Schraps was then able to get a coroner’s report and began to piece together the story of what had happened to Nathan Eaton. Seeing that Nathan had ingested five 10 mg methadone pills, he became even more suspicious.
Schraps put together a 12-page timeline, and reached out to Nathan’s father in Louisiana.
A Different Version of Nathan Eaton's Death
“The second hardest message I had ever received,” said Fernin. “Paul said that what I had been told had happened was not accurate with Nathan's death - that the facility did not check on Nathan as they said they had and that they were operating outside of their license.”
Sasha Murphy says that after she went through rehab, she was hired as an administrative assistant to (Center Point) CEO Dr. Sushma Taylor. She heard from other residents at the facility that Nathan was in no condition to remain at Center Point. “They should have brought him to the hospital to be medically cleared first,” she said.”
Fernin Eaton is now convinced that the decision to keep Nathan at Center Point was motivated by money. “That's just the sad part of it,” he said, “that the decisions at the top to keep the bed filled to put profit ahead of the client.” He sued Center Point for negligence and wrongful death.
No one from Center Point Inc. responded to repeated requests for an interview. But in a deposition, Taylor was asked about the case.
Attorney: “Would you agree ... that Nathan Eaton should not have been kept on the premises ... after admitting that he had ingested methadone?
Dr. Sushma Taylor: "No."
Lawyer: "Disagree that it’s a violation of state law?"
Dr. Sushma Taylor: "I don’t know that he was in a state of detoxification requirement."
The Department of Healthcare Services, which oversees rehab facilities, disagreed. Documents obtained by NBC Bay Area show DHCS cited Center Point for several “deficiencies,” including two of the most severe - Class A. The Agency found that Center Point “failed to refer Nathan to a higher level of care” and “performed detoxification services without a detox license.”
Fernin Eaton said he filed a lawsuit to shed light on what happened to Nathan. When Center Point Inc. offered a $245,000 settlement, Eaton’s lawyer advised him to accept it. Center Point did not admit liability in Nathan Eaton's death.
“My goal is that other families that find themselves in a similar situation consider being vigilant,” said Fernin Eaton. “Consider looking into the facility. Consider looking into the facts. Never lose hope, never lose love, and pray.”
For information about specific drug rehab facilities, you can call the Department of Healthcare Services at 916-322-2911 or 877-685-8333 to reach the “Substance Use Disorder Compliance Division.” They can tell you how many complaints and deaths have occurred at each facility. However, if an investigation is still open, DHCS can’t tell you about the complaint or death.