Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is vowing to investigate whether unlicensed rehab centers in Chicago are breaking any criminal laws.
As WBEZ recently reported, some of the people who end up at these unlicensed residences are heroin addicts who are sent to Chicago from Puerto Rico. They are told to expect well-appointed treatment centers with nurses and pools. Instead they often wind up in rundown residences, and when they don’t get the care they need, some of them end up homeless or in jail.
Dart said he was disgusted to learn of the practice.
“There’s no one in good conscience on the other end, in Puerto Rico, who could say they’re doing anything other than dumping hapless people in a foreign country,” he said. “These folks are being misled at best … and the places they’re being steered to, you wouldn’t send anybody to in good conscience.”
At least two people mentioned in WBEZ’s recent story wound up in Cook County Jail.
Dart said one of the men, who used the alias Manuel, spent 50 days in the jail, for a cost to taxpayers of more than $7,000.
“It’s expensive because once they find there’s no services here, it’s not as if they just hop back on the plane, no they’re-one way tickets. And it’s not as if they can go to plan B, there was no plan B. For many of them there’s no family around either, so what’s going to happen, they’re going to end up in our hospitals, they’re going to end up in our jails,” Dart said.
While Dart saved his strongest words for those responsible in Puerto Rico, he also said local agencies need to step in.
“I can’t imagine there are not some criminal violations that are involved if you purport to be something that you’re not and you end up harming people as a result of that,” Dart said. “We’re pushing our lawyers that we have in our office to see what it is that we can do.”
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He also thinks other local agencies could do more.
“I understand we are under all sorts of cuts throughout the state and the city and so on, but I thought at a minimum we would be having some cursory analysis of the different types of entities that put themselves out as treatment facilities,” Dart said.
But the state and the city both say they aren’t responsible.
Chicago mayoral spokesman Adam Collins said the city’s health department looked into the story and determined that it was a state issue, because the state’s Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse is responsible for licensing treatment centers.
But the director of that department, Theodora Binion, said her department doesn’t get involved until someone applies for a license.
“The city has jurisdiction over the actual buildings, what can happen in a building,” Binion told WBEZ’s Morning Shift. “Zoning is not our area, nor is the building itself…. That would come from the city.”
But she said they are “hoping to identify” the people coming from Puerto Rico so as to help them get proper treatment.
“Even though our jurisdiction … is fairly limited, we can talk to the people that are there and give them information about how they can get legitimate help,” she said.
Some of these residences are in Ald. Scott Waguespack’s 32nd Ward.
Waguespack said such unlicensed, unofficial residences exist in a sort of legal gray area between the city and state. Still, he said the city should be doing more to make sure these places are up to snuff.
“It’s pretty amazing that [the city] would try and push it off on the state,” Waguespack said.
Waguespack said he will look at what is already in the zoning code for ways to “rein in these businesses so they can’t operate above the law.” He also said he would explore ways the city could help the people being sent from Puerto Rico.
Waguespack also called on state officials to draft a law or policy that allowed Illinois government to regulate the centers.
While most officials said there is more the city or state could be doing to help, they were especially critical of the government of Puerto Rico for allowing - or even sanctioning - the practice.
Dart said they were an example “of people at their absolute worst.”
In a recent interview on This American Life, Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla acknowledged his state was giving heroin addicts one-way tickets to Chicago. But he insisted the addicts were getting good treatment here.
Since it has been revealed that often isn’t the case, Padilla thus far has refused to do another interview explaining what he plans to do now.
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad contributed to this story. Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.