Desperate families ‘exploited’ by drug and alcohol detox operators
Irene Callus was desperate.
After two decades, her daughter was still addicted to heroin – and now she was worried that she might finally lose her.
“She’s my daughter and I love her so much,” Ms Callus said.
“I would do anything to help her – anything.”
Now a full-time carer for her daughter’s three children, the Keilor East grandmother had been slowly saving money over the years, in the hope that she could eventually pay for her daughter’s private withdrawal treatment.
“I’m always looking on the internet for detox and rehabs,” she said. “But they all want a lot of money, like $30,000 or $50,000.”
Then she came across Robert Frank Mittiga, an Adelaide drug addiction counsellor who said he could fly to Melbourne almost immediately and help her daughter at a much cheaper rate.
Over almost three weeks in early 2017, Ms Callus said she paid him $4000. But when he left Melbourne in March, she said her daughter was worse than before.
Ms Callus said Mr Mittiga often asked her and her family for money for fuel and cigarettes, and when she gave him the last $800 to fly back to Adelaide it was only because she wanted him to leave.
“My daughter said she told him all her feelings, and he didn’t help her at all. He was never there,” she said.
Mr Mittiga was this week convicted in Broadmeadows Magistrates Court of providing counselling services in Victoria in breach of a ban.
He was ordered to pay back the money Ms Callus had spent on his services, and fined $10,000 plus legal costs.
In 2015 the former gambling counsellor to AFL stars was barred from providing any health service after South Australia’s Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner found he had “at times failed to provide addiction counselling and rehabilitation services in a safe and ethical manner”.
Under new laws that ban can also apply in Victoria, and he was prosecuted by the state’s Health Complaints Commissioner.
But Mr Mittiga told The Sunday Age he was not aware of the law at the time and would be “vigorously appealing” the conviction.
He said that he had tried to help Ms Callus’ daughter, but she had not done what he suggested.
“You can try to help people, but if they don’t accept the help, you can’t blame the helper.”
Mr Mittiga is still advertising his services and said he continued to accept work in other states where the ban did not apply, though he did not have any current clients.
The conviction comes as Victoria’s Health Complaints Commissioner, Karen Cusack, launches a major investigation into the unregulated private drug and alcohol sector, which will focus on two main providers.
Ms Cusack said she was concerned about exploitative billing practices where family members were paying up to $30,000 for treatments, only to have their loved ones “exited” from the program shortly afterwards.
“Families are in a desperate situation to get their loved one help, and because they often have to resort to the privately funded provider, they’re almost forced to pay whatever they’re asking,” Ms Cusack said. “It is an area of concern.”
The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association executive officer Sam Biondo said although there were many good providers, there was also “unconscionable” activity occurring in the private rehab sector – with people being misled about treatments and success rates.
He said he knew of family members borrowing money or digging into their superannuation to get help for their loved ones.
“Certainly there is a lot of profit to be made off vulnerable people,” he said.
Mr Biondo said these issues were partly linked to people being forced to wait weeks or months for access to public rehab beds.
“The state government has over the last two years very substantially increased investment in the drug and alcohol system in Victoria, however this is off a very low base and both the federal and state authorities need to invest much more,” he said.
The commissioner’s investigation into private drug and alcohol services will continue into 2019.