Timberline Knolls … The Undiscovered Country

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Henry Ford

Honesty is the fastest way to prevent a mistake from turning into failure.”

James Altucher, Author, Entrepreneur

Last week, The Morgan Foundation had the privilege of hosting a booth in the Exhibit Hall at the Academy for Eating Disorders’ 2019 ICED Conference held in New York City. During the Conference we met many incredible people engaged in the eating disorder industry.

The week prior to the Conference, the Chicago Tribune published an article containing some very alarming information regarding Timberline Knolls (“TK”) and its handling of the Michael Jacksa abuse scandal. This prompted additional investigation and based upon information gleaned, I published an article which was released during the Conference. The article echoed the information in the Chicago Tribune story but also provided additional information and facts surrounding the Jacksa Sandal. When a topic like sexual predators is involved, emotions tend to run high.

Early one morning before the crowd arrived at the Exhibit Hall, I was standing in the Morgan Foundation booth preparing for the day. Then, two individuals walked past our booth, stopped, looked at our very recognizable logo, turned and walked toward our booth. They introduced themselves and said they were from TK. My response was to respond along the lines of, “Well … the last week and a half have certainly been very challenging for you.” Emotions initially ran high and they believed my article was inaccurate and unfairly portrayed TK. Naturally, I asked for clarification and stated if any facts were shown to be wrong, as is my custom, I would issue a retraction and apology.

The senior person of the two was the current TK medical director, Dr. Johnny Williamson. Dr. Williamson and I ended up having a productive conversation. I gave some suggestions regarding the matter, we shook hands and parted. Without any reservation, I can say I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Williamson. He approached me on a topic on which he believed the facility had been wrongly portrayed and responded.

I also had the opportunity to speak with leaders in the eating disorder industry regarding the matter. When all aspects and issues about which I know were disclosed and discussed, thoughts behind this article crystallized. And so, I come not to bury Caesar, but to see, well … if Caesar can be revived.

The Scandal

On August 21, 2018, Michael Jacksa, a counselor at TK was arrested and charged with assaulting a 29 year old patient during two counseling sessions between May and June of 2018. Patients accused Jacksa of digitally penetrating their vaginas and buttocks, putting his hands beneath their clothing, fondling their breasts and forcing them to perform oral sex on him.

He was then indicted for sexually preying upon a second victim. The patient alleges that Jacksa sexually assaulted her during four therapy sessions at TK. The prosecutor said the second woman came forward after seeing media reports.

According to the prosecutor assigned to the case, at least six patients of Jacksa’s from across the country have contacted the Lemont Police Department, stating that Jacksa engaged in “inappropriate sexual behavior” during their respective therapy sessions.

And questions are being raised as to when TK knew about Jacksa and whether they allowed him continued access to patients after the allegations were made.

Sexual scandals and the #MeToo movement have brought down giants in the entertainment industry, executives in Fortune 100 companies and have reached into state and federal governments and many major corporations. It must be addressed openly and honestly and with total transparency. A failure to do so inevitably leads to severe consequences.

Frame the Issues

But first, in order to address and “get ahead” of the Jacksa Scandal, TK must become proactive. TK must act with purpose, confidence, and resolve. Both its words and actions must indicate that the Jacksa Scandal was unforeseeable and when they had information, they acted swiftly and surely. They must “Frame the Issues.”

When attorneys litigate a case, the attorney who successfully “frames the issues” in the case prevails the vast majority of the time. “Framing the issues” means successfully convincing the judge or jury what the case is “really” about. This causes the opposing party to abandon their plans and address and focus on those issues you wish to illuminate. “Framing the issues” gives you control over the issues, the information and the manner in which that information is disseminated.

If TK can find a way to “frame the issues” with regard to the Jacksa Scandal, it could take this looming disaster scenario and turn into an opportunity to become a leader in the eating disorder industry in the areas of proactive security measures and compassion for victims of sexual predators.

So, let’s look at the possible ways for TK to accomplish this.

Establish the Face of Your Organization

In five (5) years, TK has had at least five (5) Chief Executive Officers. Corporations, businesses, political parties and treatment centers get their reputation, strength, operational mandates and marching orders from their Chief Executive Officer. Dr. Ken Weiner at the Eating Recovery Center. Dirk Miller at the Emily Program. Benita Quakenbush at Avalon Hills. Rachel Levi at Shoreline Center for Eating Disorders. The largest private equity owned centers. Small independent centers. All with one thing in common. A crucially important item. Strong leadership.

With Timberline Knolls, there is no face of their program. On its website, TK currently lists Robert Turner as its CEO. Turner is an Acadia employee, a Division President. On his Linkedin profile, he does not even list CEO of Timberline Knolls as a current or past position. As an aside, there are misspelled words and grammatical errors on his Linkedin profile. Is this trivial? Or the sign of a sloppy person who is out of touch with the requirements and demands made upon leaders of companies?

To complicate matters, it appears he may not even be their current CEO. On a recent photo posted on LinkedIn, Ms. Jessica Elbe is listed as the current, interim CEO for TK. But, on her LinkedIn profile, her current position is listed as Chief Operating Officer of Seven Hills Behavioral Health Hospital in Henderson, Nevada. (Acadia owns Seven Hills).

To complicate matters even further, Sari Abromovich, on her LinkedIn profile, lists that she has been CEO of Timberline Knolls from March 2018 to present.

Three separate individuals. Each being held out or holding themselves out to be CEO. So, does TK have 3 CEOs at the same time? Or do they have none at all? Do they have one?

What we do know is that TK has no respected, known leadership. TK is owned by Acadia Healthcare, a publicly traded company. Apparently, Acadia is using the “revolving door” technique to cycle executives in and out of top positions among its 586 treatment centers. 5 CEOs and 4 medical directors in 5 years. This results in lax standards. Low morale and high turnover among employees. A company adrift with no firm resolve or clear purpose. This naturally leads to dissension, dissatisfied employees and turnover. All the while, the internet is replete with former employees of TK expressing these very attributes. And dissatisfied, disgruntled employees make mistakes … which lead to tragedies.

Point No. 1? Establish the face of your organization. Find a strong, independent CEO.

That CEO cannot be one of the many minions currently employed by Acadia. Your CEO must be independent. Your CEO must have experience in the eating disorder industry. Your CEO must have experience operating a distressed company. Your CEO must be above and beyond reproach. Your CEO must be media savvy. Give that CEO a multi-year contract. Include Acadia stock, for whatever that is worth, if you must as part of the payment package.

You do not have the luxury of having 3 people claim to be your CEO at the same time. You do not have the luxury of issuing three (3) separate press releases every time a newsworthy event occurs. One from Acadia. One from TK not even signed by any officer or employee. Another issued and signed by the medical director and not the CEO. That is the quintessential example of a confused, lost organization. A strong, insightful CEO could weather this storm. And yet, not even 1 of the 3 TK CEOs signed or endorsed even one of those three (3) statements. He/she has not issued any statements to the press.

One can’t help but wonder if they are even aware of the Jacksa Scandal. Especially since in the LinkedIn photo, Ms. Elbe is standing next to Dave Marinier and she writes, “Happy Birthday to our Director of Operations, Dave Marinier! Thank you for all that you do to keep our campus safe and secure.” Besides the six (6) victims and Margret Cho walking out when she was being checked in and then taking her own life, you are doing one hell of a job. And besides that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Put an end to the revolving door clown show. Find and then embrace a powerful leader.

Be proactive with donations being returned.

Upon information and belief, this past year, TK donated $10,000 to the National Eating Disorder Association (“NEDA”). When the Jacksa Scandal became public knowledge, it was disclosed that NEDA was going to return the $10,000 donation to TK. Allegedly, TK representatives are no longer welcome at NEDA “Fun Walks.”

NEDA’s position is obviously a strong statement of disapproval and ostracism. And so, the question becomes how do you show that you are worthy of being accepted back into the community as an important and vital contributor?

First, you do NOT keep the returned donation.

You take that money representing the donation, and you donate it to an organization like RAINN. RAINN is the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. It created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline. If not RAINN, another worthy organization whose mission includes assisting those who have been preyed upon by sexual predators. And a forward thinking CEO makes this donation public, not just through a press release but arranges media coverage.

And when the allegations made by each of Jacksa’s victims at TK are corroborated, you donate a similar amount for each and every victim. You send a clear, strong signal that never again will this reprehensible conduct be allowed or tolerated at Timberline Knolls… not just through your words but through your actions.

Point N0. 2? Take negative, detrimental criticism directed toward your company, and turn it into positive action that helps others who have been hurt. Be a strong, forward thinking company which doesn’t just say the appropriate words … it acts upon them.

Arrange and Pay for Counseling for the Victims

The victims of Jacksa were so incredibly vulnerable. They are struggling with this insidious, deadly disease. And they were cruelly betrayed. The scars from this betrayal undoubtedly exacerbated the severity of this disease. And it happened under TK’s watch. At this point, Jacksa’s victims do not need your words. At this point, Jacksa’s victims do not need to hear about how you have implemented security measures after the fact.

The Jacksa Scandal demands action, sure and strong.

As such, you communicate with the victims through their representatives or current counselors that you will be financially responsible for their treatment for one year. Counseling. Medication if needed. Psychiatrists. They do not need your empty words. They need strong action.

Undoubtedly, your attorneys will advise against this. They will say that this action is tantamount to an admission of guilt. That it will be used against you in litigation which will inevitably be filed by one, if not more of Jacksa’s victims. And certainly that is a risk. But, no great deed was ever accomplished without risk. This proposal can be communicated in a way to lessen that risk. After all, this gesture is not intended to be an admission of guilt. This is not an empty gesture. This is not a gimmick. It is the right and morally responsible thing to do. It shows strength of purpose and compassion for the victims.

Point No. 3? TK claims that patient safety and quality care are its primary foci. And yet, TK’s patients’ safety has been compromised. And from this horrendous experience arises an opportunity. This is TK’s opportunity to take action, to show it stands behind its noble words. With this, TK can assist in starting the process by which those patients who were harmed, can receive the care they need … without the constraints of financial worries.

Implement State of the Art security measures.

The mental health industry has known since at least 1991, when Kenneth Pope published the definitive research study on “Prior Therapist – Patient Sexual Involvement Among Patients Seen by Psychologists” that sexual interaction between therapist and patient was far more prevalent than believed. Studies indicate that harm occurred in at least 80% of the instances in which the therapists engaged in sex with a patient after termination.

With eating disorder patients being so vulnerable mentally, emotionally and physically, their safety and well-being are of the highest importance. And because of the predatory nature of the criminal minds who exploit this vulnerability, treatment centers must be proactive, intelligent, anticipatory and creative. More often than not, these treatment centers fail in this mission. 

In one of TK’s three statements on the Jacksa Scandal, TK stated in material part: “State-approved protocols and rigorous training processes are implemented not only so that employees of Timberline Knolls are well-versed in the expectations and standards to which they will be held, but also to ensure that only the most optimal employees are selected to work with our residents. Every prospective employee undergoes a comprehensive pre-employment screening and background check. Tragically, this particular former employee managed to manipulate our policies, protocols, and procedures, and we have conducted a thorough investigation into how this happened so that it does not occur again.”

So, a sexual predator found a way to avoid TK’s policies and procedures even after TK adopted “state-approved protocols.” Far too often people believe that once state approved policies, rules or procedures have been adopted or approved, that is the end of the process and your guidelines are sufficient. If you believe that, you are mistaken. State or federal policies or rules are not the end of the process. They are only the beginning. They represent the bare minimum standard to which an entity must comply. And when has the bare minimum been good enough for any great accomplishment?

In one of TK’s statements, TK notes the new changes which have been implemented, Unfortunately, “the horse already left the barn.” Presumably, these changes were made after an internal review. And the question of whether the same people who came up with the prior inadequate policies, rules and procedures which were eluded by one, lone sexual predator came up with the changes and new policies?

TK needs to get in front of this issue. TK needs to consult with law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and outside companies which specialize in implementing safety rules and procedures for both employees and patients. A proactive company explores procedures much more thoroughly than simply performing an internet search on a person.

Families come to places like TK when they are in the pit of despair. Fear rules their lives. Imagine being able to tell those families that your policies and procedures were put in place only after consulting with federal and state agencies and are designed to do one thing, and one thing alone, protect the health, safety and welfare of their patients.

Point N0. 4? Your claim of prioritizing patient safety has been compromised and exposed. As such, TK must go above and beyond the bare minimum. It must set a new standard and elevate security procedures and employee vetting to the highest level. We live in the expanding age of technology and the internet. We entrust TK with the lives of our children. To reclaim the initiative they must originate then implement procedures that the rest of the industry will struggle to catch up with.

TK must become autonomous

Acadia Healthcare, a publicly traded company owns Timberline Knolls. Acadia purchased TK in 2012 for $90 million. Acadia is obviously now making the high level decisions for TK. For TK to survive, that must immediately stop.

TK must be allowed to operate as an autonomous, independent eating disorder treatment center. Not as a small profit center for a multi-billion dollar company. Decisions must be based on what is in the best interests of the patients and must not be profit driven alone.

But, there is another reason for TK to be autonomous. In the recent previous post about the Jacksa Scandal, various lawsuits against Acadia were detailed. Then, a more recent lawsuit was discovered. A lawsuit that if successful along the lines of the Wit case would spell the end of Acadia.

In February of 2019, a lawsuit was filed against Acadia and its upper tier officers in federal court in Tennessee (“Davydov case”). The lawsuit is a shareholders derivative complaint. This type of lawsuit is brought on behalf of shareholders against individual officers and directors of a corporation alleging they are not acting in the corporation’s best interests. Like the Wit case, the attorneys in this case specialize in that particular area of law. They are based in San Diego. And they have established a reputation of excellence.

The allegations in the Davydov case are shocking. The shareholder alleges Acadia sought to improve its profit margin by increasing the number of beds for patients while reducing staffing expenditures, its largest expense. He alleges the individual officers and directors withheld information pertaining to critical health and safety measures and thereby operated unsafe facilities. The Davydov case details numerous instances of improper care, of patients committing suicides at a number of Acadia owned facilities.

Sexual assaults against patients in other Acadia facilities are detailed.

The Davydov case specifically alleges:

“An extensive investigation conducted by Aurelius Value based on over 600 state and federal inspection reports as well as court records, media reports, lawsuits, and police records, confirmed the allegations contained in the Seeking Alpha report. In particular, Aurelius Value’s investigation found: (i) numerous patients, including children and teenagers, have died due to alleged negligence or malpractice at Acadia facilities; (ii) recurring reports of sexual abuse and physical assaults on vulnerable patients that have allegedly been perpetrated by Acadia employees or unmonitored patients; (iii) repeated instances of patient neglect or deficient care linked directly to staffing problems at Acadia facilities; and (iv) a pattern of whistleblower allegations made by former employees who say the Company retaliated against them after they reported fraud or misconduct.”

The 84 page complaint details a web of insider trading, patient abuse, patient suicide, misrepresentations, fraud perpetrated by Acadia. And for the reasons set forth above, Acadia has absolute control over TK.

Point No. 5? TK exists in name only. TK has no direction. TK has no leadership. For TK to start to thrive, Acadia must let loose its grip and allow TK to operate autonomously.

The Undiscovered Country

In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the term “Undiscovered Country” is used. In the Bard’s context it refers to the concept of death, the mysteries of the afterlife, our lack of understanding and knowledge about it. And the fear of it.

More recently, in 1991, the movie, “Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country” was released. During a toast amongst the characters, the toast, “To the Undiscovered Country” is given. In that context, the Undiscovered Country refers to the future … and the endless positive possibilities which exist. It embraces a future of hope.

Embracing the future or fearing death. Those are the realities and choices now facing Timberline Knolls and Acadia. If Acadia keeps utilizing Timberline Knolls as a testing ground for its executive officers leaving it without a real leader and strong voice, it will surely fail. And our children will continue to suffer.

If however, Timberline Knolls is allowed autonomy and independence, without interference from Acadia, it can reclaim its place as a leader in the eating disorder industry.

The Undiscovered Country awaits.

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