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A troubled La Mesa nonprofit that once held court-ordered classes for probationers and supervised community service has shut down, leaving behind thousands of dollars in tax bills and a lawsuit claiming the group’s missteps once led a woman to be mistakenly jailed for more than a week.

The Corrective Behavior Institute, which served both juvenile and adult offenders, told the San Diego County Probation Department it would close its doors last February. The decision came 18 months after a Voice of San Diego investigation found the organization was nine years late filing required documents with the state and had lost its right to operate as a business – and yet continued to receive referrals from prosecutors, probation officials and the Superior Court.

Then something curious happened.

Within weeks of the reported closure, a new nonprofit with an almost identical name emerged: the California Behavior Institute. The group shares the previous organization’s phone number and is operated by a former 20-year staffer at the Corrective Behavior Institute.

That new group’s since been added to both county Superior Court and probation department rosters of local probation program providers.

That makes it one of about 180 agencies in the county that supervise court-ordered classes meant to help those accused of offenses such as theft, truancy or drug use avoid past mistakes. Instructors lead discussions about triggers and making better choices in the future.

The probation official charged with keeping tabs on such programs says the Corrective Behavior Institute had drawn regular gripes from judges, parents and youth who said its classes weren’t rigorous or helpful, that class locations were unsavory and that first-time offenders attended the same classes as repeat offenders.

Geoff Twitchell, the probation department’s treatment director, said the California Behavior Institute is providing improved programming and not eliciting the regular complaints that plagued the similarly named nonprofit that came before it.

The California Behavior Institute ended up on county provider lists despite questions about its ties to that previous group. Nonprofits only need to provide proof of liability insurance, a pledge it would follow the law and basic descriptions of its programs to get on these lists. One thing California Behavior Institute didn’t do: register with the state attorney general’s office – a likely violation of the state law that’s intended to help ensure nonprofits are using their assets for charitable purposes.

Yet the registration failure wasn’t flagged by the probation department or Superior Court.

Top county court and probation officials have admitted that vetting of groups that offer probation programming has historically been insufficient.

Michael Roddy, the Superior Court’s executive officer, has called on the state Legislature to subject such groups to more regulatory requirements and oversight.

Mack Jenkins, the county’s chief probation officer, said his agency’s made efforts to step up its own reviews of probation providers in recent years with a new screening system, training from the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute to help the county push more evidence-based programming and a new county position focused on better overseeing and evaluating their work.

Jenkins said the new system allows for greater background checks of providers but acknowledges it’s not perfect.

“If you’re looking for a fool-proof system, I can tell you I don’t have it but I believe we have a responsive system,” said Jenkins, who promised to have probation staffers take a closer look at the California Behavior Institute’s status with the attorney general’s office.

Patricia Coronado, the new nonprofit’s leader, pledged to register with the attorney general’s office. And she was adamant her nonprofit isn’t affiliated with the Corrective Behavior Institute, a group at least temporarily booted off the probation department’s referral list after the August 2013 VOSD story.

(Jenkins said the Corrective Behavior Institute got back on that roster after meeting his department’s demands to address state violations laid out in the VOSD story. A spokeswoman for the Superior Court said the group was simply removed from the list after it failed to reapply in 2014 and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office says it stopped referring offenders to Corrective Behavior, or any other specific providers, after the 2013 story.)

“I have nothing to do with Corrective Behavior Institute. That closed down,” Coronado said. “This is my business now.”

I asked Coronado if the similarities between the Corrective Behavior Institute and her new organization might seem questionable.

“It does look that way but that is not my intention,” she said. “My intention was to start a business, do everything right.”

Coronado said she wasn’t aware of the depth of then-Corrective Behavior Institute’s problems before that nonprofit was shuttered early last year.

Coronado said she hadn’t heard about a 2014 lawsuit seeking nearly $240,000 following a woman’s claim that she spent 11 days in jail after Corrective Behavior Institute incorrectly reported she failed to complete an anti-shoplifting program two years earlier. Former Corrective Behavior Institute director Lauren Dunlap has been served but the plaintiff’s attorney said Dunlap hasn’t shown up in court to defend herself or her defunct nonprofit.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Moataz Hamza, has repeatedly sought a default judgment against the nonprofit and Dunlap and has mulled pursuing legal action against the California Behavior Institute because of the similarities between the two organizations.

Coronado also said she wasn’t aware the previous organization owes more than $6,350 in state back taxes and fees.

What she did know, she said, was that Dunlap, was overwhelmed by the demands of running a nonprofit she’d been forced to take over after her mother fell ill and passed away. Dunlap could not be reached for this story.

The group was well-intentioned and aimed to provide quality programming for offenders, said Coronado, the former nonprofit’s longtime class coordinator.

“They weren’t there to cheat anybody,” Coronado said.

When Dunlap decided to step away, Coronado said she told Dunlap she wanted to start her own nonprofit and initially planned to take over the previous one’s La Mesa office space and phone number. Coronado’s group only ended up with the phone number, a move she said ensured her organization would get the court calls her former employer once received. She settled on the California Behavior Institute moniker, she said, not because it was similar to the previous nonprofit’s name but because her son suggested it.

Coronado said she’s since fallen out of touch with Dunlap.

In the year since, Coronado’s group has listed the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Rolando as its home base in county and state filings though it simply rents space there on Saturdays, a fact that came as a surprise to Kroc Center administrators I reached. Coronado’s also the California Behavior Institute’s only board member and her organization only accepts cash and checks from clients. Multiple nonprofit oversight experts I spoke with for this story say these practices could point to a lack of internal controls.

“It would be easy for someone to take advantage of these arrangements,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, a group that vets nonprofits.

Coronado said she wasn’t aware her actions might be considered questionable and said she’d fix any problems with her organization’s structure immediately.

“I want to do everything right that I’m supposed to,” she said.

One example, Coronado said, was her willingness to meet with county law enforcement officials and act on their feedback on her group’s classes.

Twitchell, the county probation official who oversees outside programs like Coronado’s, confirmed he and other county staffers sat down with the California Behavior Institute in April to discuss concerns tied to the previous organization. A couple judges also met separately with Coronado, he said.

“They were going to be using the same acronym, CBI, and I can understand from their perspective wanting to maintain a client base since they’re one of the few that actually conducts these kinds of services,” Twitchell said. “But I wanted to make sure the programming was different and it was actually evidence-based and not the same thing that had been happening when they had these compliance issues.”

At the meeting, Twitchell said he advised the group to separate first-time or low-risk offenders from more high-risk ones in classes and to stop showing clients graphic photos meant to encourage them to avoid bad choices. Twitchell also asked Coronado to regularly survey participants to ensure they’re pleased with the programming.

And he endorsed the group’s decision to hold its programs at the Kroc Center rather than at a hotel or the La Mesa strip mall where the Corrective Behavior Institute once held programs. Parents had complained those locations were less-than-ideal environments for their teens during class breaks.

Since that meeting, Twitchell said complaints from judges in particular have fallen off.

“The bench was why we were following up largely. I meet with them frequently and I heard for some time there had been this history,” Twitchell said. “To stop hearing about CBI was of note.”

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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