America’s Unlicensed Rehab Groups:

The New Religious Movements Behind the Media Coverage

Journalism’s topical concerns may background or even distort the people and everyday rhythms giving rise to eye-grabbing headlines, especially in the face of limited information about new religious movements like America’s unlicensed rehab groups.

In such cases, when the goal is understand groups’ general contours and characteristics, media coverage should be carefully sifted and supplemented with any other possible sources.

With America’s unlicensed rehab groups, the first burst of coverage began in April 2015 with Adriana Cardona-Maguigad’s investigation co-published by Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ and the free bilingual newspaper The Gate News. Simultaneously, WBEZ’s nationally broadcast This American Life relayed the provocative story of Puerto Rican officials exporting addicts to the mainland with promises of deluxe treatment programs, only for many to end up homeless after discovering “flophouses open twenty-four hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometime ten or thirteen hours straight,” in the words of host Ira Glass.

Interestingly, though branding themselves with the phrase “Alcoholics Anonymous,” these groups were known to neither AA nor state licensing agencies.

Beginning in May 2015 and continuing into 2016, then, the next and now tapering phase of coverage has traced consequences of the initial revelations: to some degree, charitable community responses to stranded Puerto Rican addicts, but primarily the incipient government investigations into potential licensing and zoning violations, the protocols of Puerto Rico’s originating agencies, and possible misuse of federal Housing and Urban Development funds. As of 2016, officials from the Illinois Department of Humans Services have even categorized the organizations as support groups and thus exempt from its oversight.

Concurrently, some journalistic investigation has continued, and as of July 2015 uncovered two cases of identity theft of addicts associated with the groups, some of which confiscate documents and in at least one instance did not return them when participants left, though these situations are half-known and the addicts themselves may have sold their own identities. An odd 2006 Chicago killing in which one participant murdered another has also been brought to renewed attention, as proof that the groups have been present for years in the city, though not much in the public eye.

In response to all of this press coverage, some groups have lowered their profiles even further and removed signage.

What exactly are these groups, then?

Unfortunately, Chicago-based reporting on a handful of centers and scant existing research like a CUNY dissertation mentioning a Bronx site provide only tentative glimpses via limited firsthand engagement and some hearsay.

Population-wise, most participants seem to be male Spanish-speakers of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, and the centers’ origins are still unconfirmed but seem connected with these communities. According to one Chicago leader, the centers began in Mexico and migrated north, while the CUNY researcher Rafael Torruella links them to Pentecostal ministries from Puerto Rico.

In any case, reports place them in at least Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Florida, and some that use the distinctive “24 hour” method affiliate with international networks extending to Mexico, Colombia, and Spain. Apart from the widely publicized deceptive referrals by Puerto Rican officials, local word-of-mouth apparently attracts many if not most participants, perhaps partially due to an inability of some to access more respectable but more expensive treatment options. Bearing the name padrinos (“godparents”), leaders presently appear to be Pentecostal pastors, former addicts patterning programs after their previous experiences, or both.

Culturally, the groups seem to operate within the cultural matrices of mainstream self-help culture and Pentecostal Christianity. For example, the original Gate News article describes one site and mentions posters referencing the Twelve Steps, of a piece with some groups’ unauthorized use of the Alcoholics Anonymous name in signage. Yet other posters at the same site, however, depict a person beset by demons, in keeping with charismatic Christian tendencies to understand phenomena like feelings of temptation as malevolent supernatural beings.

Besides these few details on demographics and broad cultural outlines, groups are largely independent and display a range of practices, making generalizations difficult in the absence of surveys or ethnographic studies.

Apart from innocuous differences like smoking policies, a good number of centers appear to provide the “24 hour” programs upon which initial reporting in Chicago memorably focused: bags and persons are searched, identification confiscated, and people pressured not to leave the premises for anywhere from six to twelve weeks as they live in close quarters and receive board, sometimes in part from government aid signed over by eligible individuals.

As addicts go ‘cold turkey’, folk remedies can be applied, such as an onion in the mouth or alcohol in the navel. Otherwise, the main treatment seems to be testimonies and group therapy involving shaming, mainly through yelling, with other variants in some places. At the Bronx location described to Torruella, daily prayers reportedly occurred, as well as a ritual in which a participant with repeated failures crawls across the floor to a “Sanhedrin” of four clean peers while confessing. More recently, secondhand accounts placed at two different groups the punishment of shaving the head or eyebrows.

In this style of treatment, outcomes are attributed to strength of personal desire. Among those deemed to lack sufficient willpower, some leave from disgust or frustration, sometimes without recovering documentation. Many addicts and their family members testify to the programs’ efficacy, however, and these recovered persons begin to re-enter the outside world and find work, though still living at the center at first, for which they pay a nominal fee such as $50–75 a week.

Beyond such activities, tantalizing newspaper photographs of a Chicago anniversary party also suggest continuing involvement of the recovered in conjunction with their loved ones in at least some locations, whatever the form of treatment offered there.

As indicated by these spotty descriptions encompassing different locations and a variety of practices, though, so much more research is necessary.

Nevertheless, focus on the groups themselves and not the deceptively expatriated Puerto Rican addicts provides the starting point for a relatively sound if not yet satisfactorily detailed understanding of these fascinating new religious movements.

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$2 million bail set in fatal stabbing.” Chicago Tribune. July 30, 2006.

Pérez Torruella, Rafael A. “¿Allá en Nueva York Todo es Mejor?: A Qualitative Study on the Relocation of Drug Users from Puerto Rico to the United States.” Ph.D. dissertation, The City University of New York, 2010.

Cardona-Maguigad, Adriana. “Puerto Rico exports its drug addicts to Chicago.” WBEZ. April 10, 2015.

Not It!” Episode 554 of This American Life. Originally aired on April 10, 2015.

Klauke, Marina. “Surge compromiso para ayudar a adictos puertorriqueños.” Hoy. May 20, 2015.

Yousef, Odette. “Drug addicts from Puerto Rico may be victims of ID theft in Chicago.” WBEZ. July 6, 2015.

Updike, Nancy. “Update on unlicensed rehab center story.” Blog post for This American Life. July 9, 2015.

Cardona-Maguigad, Adriana. “Sent to US for Drug Rehab, Puerto Ricans Endure Humiliation at Unregulated Centers.” Truthout. November 25, 2015.

Lydersen, Kari. “Debt and Drugs: A Toxic Colonial Legacy for Puerto Rico.” telesur. February 22, 2016.