When Margaret and John Millington’s son Simon was in the grips of an opioid addiction, his parents wanted to send him to a rehabilitation program. The only one available was called Narconon.
When he emerged at the end of three months he was better than they had ever seen, but he relapsed soon after. Four years later, in 2010, he died from an overdose, leaving his five-year-old daughter Maddie without a father.
Mrs Millington said “if there had been options, we wouldn’t have paid [for Simon] to go to Narconon.
“It was the only option we had at the time. There were absolutely no government-funded rehabs around,” she said.
“We were happy to try anything to save his life, we just wanted to get Simon well.”
Narconon’s Yarra Ranges facility suspended operations in Victoria in 2019. Parks Victoria confirmed the group’s lease of its site, O’Shannassy Lodge, ended in June 2020. A new organisation under the Narconon name was registered in March 2020, but a spokesperson from its parent organisation, the Association for Better Living and Education, said the future of the residential program and its current site was “uncertain”.
When it was operational, the facility followed a natural, abstinence-based, no-medication approach to drug treatment. It was also tied to the Church of Scientology. Although this concerned the Millingtons, they were desperate to help their son.
Narconon’s program has been controversial. The program was fined in Victoria in 2015 for making misleading claims about its treatment methods and has been associated with deaths in its overseas branches.
In a 2018 case, Victorian County Court judge Frank Gucciardo reduced an offender’s sentence “in recognition of the punitive impact” of the Narconon program’s restrictive measures.
Despite this, on at least four occasions identified by The Citizen, County Court judges took into consideration people’s treatment at Narconon during sentencing hearings.’
The facility’s position in Victoria’s drug rehabilitation system underlines a core complaint contained in a new Health Complaints Commissioner report: the lack of adequate resources for publicly funded rehabilitation is directing people to services on an unregulated fringe that offer uncertain quality of treatment.
County Court records from a September 2019 ruling show judge Gabrielle Cannon told a defendant: “It is to your credit that you initiated the engagement with the Narconon program … to the point that … [Narconon] sang your praises and wished you to stay on as a counsellor.”
In a 2011 case, a judge heard concerns from a psychologist that the defendant, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been required as part of his bail conditions to stay at the Narconon facility, had been denied his medication.
It is unclear whether the judges were aware of the program’s Scientology connection or its controversial history. A spokesperson for the County Court said they were unable to comment on judges’ decisions.
Victorian Alcohol and Drugs Association chief executive Sam Biondo said courts should act on advice from alcohol and drug experts when choosing where to recommend offenders.
“I would be concerned about courts referring anyone into any private facility which has not been vetted and approved by appropriately qualified individuals.”
He acknowledged that “the courts are in a difficult spot” with the sector’s capacity crisis, meaning they are often left with little choice over where offenders go for treatment.
A Melbourne-based psychologist with many years’ experience in treating addictions, and who requested anonymity, said former clients of Narconon told him the program had not been useful in learning to manage their addiction or handle challenges.
“I’m fairly regularly asked [by judges] for recommendations, but I’d never recommend Narconon. I can’t think of any particularly strong reasons why Narconon would be a suitable placement for most people who require a drug rehab placement as part of, for instance, a bail condition.”
Paul Schofield, a former Scientologist who spent 13 years supervising the Narconon Australasia programs, said while Narconon presented itself as filling a gap in rehabilitation services, its main goal was to recruit people into Scientology.
Former clients of the program were pressured to stay on as counsellors and become “part of the Scientology spiderweb”, Mr Schofield said.
“What they were doing was delivering Scientology to people who had a drug problem.”
An Australian Church of Scientology spokeswoman said Narconon used founder L. Ron Hubbard’s drug rehabilitation methodology, but denied that the centre delivered Scientology teachings to its residents. She defended Narconon’s drug-free approach to treatment.
“Harm reduction has one viewpoint on how to deal with addictions. This is not the model Narconon follows. Narconon works, and people who want a program where they can get off drugs without the use of drugs go to Narconon.”
Harm Reduction Australia chief executive Gino Vumbaca said he was concerned the rehabilitation facility seemed “to develop a program based on the ideology of Scientology first, not on evidence”.
Mr Vumbaca said Narconon’s abstinence-based approach would not work for everyone and could do more harm than good.
“If you just say you need to be abstinent to access this program … then you’re going to lose a lot of people, you’re going to have a lot of people harmed and potentially die as well,” he said.
Mr Vumbaca said research and evidence was needed to determine whether treatment methods are effective and safe in the long term.
“Some people may benefit from it – that doesn’t mean it’s good,” he said.
He said the private drug sector needed more regulatory scrutiny.
“We’re talking about very vulnerable people here, and we’re talking about, often, very desperate family members.
The Church of Scientology in Australia has previously been accused in the media of crimes, including forced abortion and child abuse, details of which were read into the federal parliamentary record by then-Senator Nick Xenophon in 2009.
Mr Xenophon, who argued against the church’s tax-exempt status, told The Age the church’s business model was “ruthless” and questioned whether the program was a “Venus flytrap” for Scientology recruitment.
There is huge demand for rehabilitation services in Australia. Some 200,000 to 230,000 Australians received drug and alcohol treatment in 2019, but demand was estimated to be as high as 755,557, a 2019 study found. The number of drug overdose deaths in Victoria increased faster than the rate of population growth over the decade to 2019.
The shortage of treatment facilities and places has created a market for programs such as Narconon, according to a senior psychologist who spoke to The Age on condition of anonymity.
“There’s a dearth of these facilities that creates an opening, not only for Narconon but for others, to create a market for their services. Narconon is one of the symptoms of that problem.”
Mrs Millington, who has campaigned for increased government funding for rehabilitation facilities in western Victoria, thinks “the government should be throwing more money at rehabs”.
This story is co-published with The Age.
*Note: This story updates a previous version, clarifying that judges do not actively refer individuals to particular programs.