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Licensing board dismisses privacy violation complaints against Fargo social workers

FARGO -- A licensing board has dismissed complaints against two social workers accused of violating privacy laws by speaking with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead for a story about the abrupt discharges of recovering addicts from a state-funded reside...

FARGO -- A licensing board has dismissed complaints against two social workers accused of violating privacy laws by speaking with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead for a story about the abrupt discharges of recovering addicts from a state-funded residential treatment program.

The North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners met Tuesday, May 17, in Bismarck and decided the complaints did not warrant any discipline, board representative Nikki Owings said.

"They just didn't find any grounds to support the allegations," she said of the board.

The two social workers are both former employees of Sharehouse, a south Fargo drug treatment center that came under the scrutiny of state investigators after The Forum reported about the sudden discharges of six residential patients.

A pair of Sharehouse officials submitted the complaints against the two social workers. The complaints cited a March 13 Forum story as evidence that the social workers broke federal patient-confidentiality laws and professional ethics codes by linking specific patients to the addiction treatment they were receiving. Both social workers denied the allegations.

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For the March 13 story, the two social workers told The Forum about the repeated emotional pleas they made in trying to delay the discharges, which patients were told about on Feb. 25.

In doing so, the two social workers did not divulge the names of any patients. The only patient named in the story was one man who, according to Moorhead police, died from a methamphetamine overdose on Feb. 26, the day after he left the program. That man was 42-year-old Shawn Hansen, and it was his family and friends who identified him in speaking with the newspaper.

The social workers were among a group of about 25 Sharehouse employees laid off Feb. 29. The social workers and two other former Sharehouse staffers were sources for the March 13 story. All four sources requested anonymity for fear of negative effects on their careers. For that same reason, The Forum is not naming the two social workers in this story.

Reached by phone, one of the social workers was elated to hear that the complaints had been dismissed. "Oh my goodness, that is such wonderful news," she said. "That makes my day."

The Sharehouse officials who made the complaints were residential treatment director David Collins, who supervised the two social workers, and Elisabeth Langbehn, a licensed addiction counselor. Langbehn declined to comment on the board's decision, and attempts to reach Collins were unsuccessful.

After sending an email to Collins' Sharehouse address, an automatic reply stated that he no longer worked at the center as of May 6. Sharehouse CEO Nate Medhus would not comment on the reason for Collins' departure, and he also declined to discuss the board's decision.

Collins and Langbehn previously told The Forum they independently filed their complaints without pressure from anyone at Sharehouse. Collins has said the complaints were not retribution for the social workers talking to The Forum about the discharges, which they described as unethical and which they said he oversaw.

The Forum brought the sudden discharges to the attention of North Dakota officials, prompting the state's Behavioral Health Division to investigate Sharehouse's practices. An investigation report said Sharehouse hastily and inappropriately discharged the patients in a way that threatened their health and safety.

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The investigation report went beyond the one cluster of discharges in February to say that Sharehouse often violated its own policies, state laws and the American Society of Addiction Medicine's best practices. This included discharging patients not ready for a less-intensive level of treatment and not making the appropriate referrals to housing agencies, outpatient treatment programs and other services.

In the report, investigators expressed concern that Sharehouse, a private nonprofit group, put financial considerations ahead of medical needs when making admission and discharge decisions.

Sharehouse must submit a plan of corrective action to state officials by Tuesday, May 24. After that, state officials will conduct follow-up reviews to see if Sharehouse is complying with the plan, the report said.

If Sharehouse does not comply, its treatment center license could be suspended for 99 days, and further noncompliance could lead to revocation of the center's license, state officials said.

Medhus has declined to comment on the investigation's findings, and he's said privacy laws prevent him and other Sharehouse officials from explaining the reason for the discharges.

The discharges came amid tough financial times for Sharehouse, which recently has significantly reduced the average length of stay for residential patients, like the six discharged.

The six were part of the state-funded Robinson Recovery program, which serves North Dakotans who can't pay for residential treatment out of pocket and don't have insurance to cover the cost. Sharehouse holds the state contract to run the program, which mostly treats those with severe addictions to meth or opiates, including heroin.

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