Arizona takes action on predatory treatment centers preying on Indigenous communities
On Tuesday, May 16, the Governor of Arizona announced that the state would take action against fake rehab centers that have been targeting Indigenous communities throughout the Rocky Mountain West, including the Navajo Nation.
Arizona's Attorney General Kris Mayes said she believes the state of Arizona owes its tribal nations an apology.
"This is tragic. What has happened is tragic and outrageous. And I'll just speak for myself as the Attorney General of this state, I believe the state of Arizona owes our tribal nations an apology, I do," said Mayes during a press conference on Tuesday.
In addition to defrauding the state out of millions in Medicaid payments, the centers have been coming onto tribal land and luring vulnerable people, sometimes with drugs and alcohol, to these centers, where they are frequently given no treatment and are stranded far from home.
Community members have been raising the alarm about this for months, and on May 5 victims advocates held a walk in downtown Phoenix calling for action.
Maeve Conran spoke with Crystal Ashike of KSUT Tribal Radio and Chris Clements of KSJD who have been reporting on the issue.
Maeve Conran: Crystal, let's start with you. How and when did you first become aware of this issue?
Crystal Ashike: I'm a Navajo Nation member and it was kind of hard for me to believe.
I'm part of social media and I saw this post by Carol Willeto and she (said) "Hey, there's people coming out to the Navajo Nation. We had to call the cops on them," and it was like this whole kind of story.
I was just like in disbelief because I grew up on the Navajo Nation, I know about the Navajo Nation, so I kept up with it, and then I found out finally when I really could get some solid source on it, which was the Navajo Nation Police.
There was a post put out by them last year. It was like, oh wow, this is serious.
Maeve Conran: Well, you spoke with Roland Dash, Sergeant Dash with the Navajo Police Department, and as you said, they had put a warning out on their Facebook feed warning people about these vans that were showing up in the communities.
"But right now, it's a constant thing of these guys showing up here and taking these individuals down. I made contact with the FBI on this whole thing. I made contact with my superiors on everything that's going on. I provided them with information. I made contact with CI, our criminal investigator here in Tuba City, to see what's going on here," said Dash in a phone call to Ashike last December.
Maeve Conran: Well, Chris, I'd like to bring you in now because you've been reporting recently on this.
There was a big day of action, a big rally that happened in Phoenix, Arizona, on May 5.
How did you become involved in reporting on this and who have you spoken to?
Chris Clements: I kind of found out about this issue because I'm on a lot of Facebook groups and I eventually joined one called Predatory Treatment Centers, and I think it was started by a victim's advocate named Reva Stewart and Colleen (Chatter) her friend.
Both of them have had relatives who have gone missing as a result of this process.
And they told me about folks who are being taken that are sort of in our area, Towaoc, Colorado, in the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, and all throughout Kayenta, Arizona, and Red Mesa.
"Now we're finding out it's in Montana, it's in South Dakota. You know, we've got one from Nevada, California. And they're brought down here into the valley. And last count, we had over 3,000 homes that we've been able to find out about," said Stewart.
Maeve Conran: What is the regulatory, or what has been the regulatory framework that has facilitated this to even happen?
Chris Clements: According to Reva you know, these rehabs, these treatment centers, sober living homes, they started proliferating during the years of the pandemic because there was just sort of a policy at that point where (if) you wanted to start a home like this, this is all according to her, you could just call AHCCCS, which is Arizona's Medicaid program and sort of get licensed that way.
There are a number of unlicensed homes I think operating out there.
That was one way that they got started and I think just in general, there was a large public health blind spot during the pandemic as a result of the lockdowns and quarantine, and that's kind of how it began.
And now according to Reva, these homes are getting paid through multiple different streams of income.
One of them is being registered as a Indian Health Provider under AHCCCS, which I think is its own payment (stream.)
And then another is taking folks to intensive outpatient centers (IOPs) that are nearby for classes and they get paid to do that, sort of kickbacks by the outpatient centers themselves.
According to Reva, this process is quite complicated and I think even the FBI and people who are involved, everyone is all still figuring out exactly how it works.
Maeve Conran: Reva organized that rally that I said happened in Phoenix on May 5, but she's also testified before the Arizona State Legislature and there has been some slight change there.
Chris Clements: Yes, so the kickbacks I mentioned from these IOPs (Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs) they're called, they aren't going to be as easy to come by now because AHCCCS has made a change to its policy that basically says that they will now pay less money than they previously were for folks who are being taken to IOPs that are under AHCCCS' American Indian Health Program.
And so now that that change has been made, Reva told me she predicts that thousands of Indigenous folks in the Phoenix area are going to be unhoused, kicked out essentially from these homes because they are no longer bringing in the same amount of money that they were.
"There's gonna be a lot more unsheltered relatives 'cos a lot of these homes will just shut down, and ask you to leave," said Stewart.
On May 11, Navajo Police Department Deputy Chief Ron Silversmith, posted two videos on the police department's Facebook page, cautioning Navajo Nation communities about various predatory rehab centers that were picking people up off and on the Navajo Nation land.
The first video was in the Navajo language and that was followed by a video in English.
Deputy Chief Silversmith described in the video how many people were being enticed away from the Navajo Nation, either voluntarily or being coerced by alcohol or food, with the promise of treatment.
Maeve Conran: Well, Crystal, we heard how Indigenous communities all across the west are being targeted by these predatory centers, but as we heard, you yourself, you're from the Navajo Nation.
For people who aren't familiar with the Navajo Nation, what is it about it that makes people so extremely vulnerable to these predatory centers and these predatory practices?
Crystal Ashike: I know when I go back to the Navajo Nation, I can see it, you know, like there's a lot of people that walk everywhere, everywhere.
We don't have a good transit system that runs from, you know, certain times, every 15 minutes.
If you were to travel on the Navajo Nation, I guarantee you'll see an elder, you'll see a young woman, you'll see a young man, you'll see someone walking on the road putting their hand out, and that's where these basically predatory treatment centers are taking advantage of (people.)
They know it. They know where to go.
This story was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.