Nathan Hardage admits he was a drug dealer and a drug addict. That's why he calls himself "The Wounded Healer."
He claims his unconventional approach to re-habilitation has a success rate of 88-percent.
“In order to truly help someone you need to dig into their life, you gotta walk with them. You gotta be right beside them.”
Hardage says he's beside his clients 24-7, at least during the initial, in-patient phase of drug treatment.
"I actually have rooms in my homes where they’re dedicated for detox and they’re dedicated for therapy, they’re dedicated for counseling," the 33-year old told us.
We visited one of his homes in Lee's Summit, a suburb of Kansas City.
“This is where we have the family come. We’ll do an intervention or family therapy," Hardage said showing us the living room.
"It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me, honestly," said Max O'Neill, one of three clients living in Hardage's home at the time of our visit.
O'Neill, 23 says he started using opiates like heroin, pain killers and morphine five years ago. He turned to Hardage nearly a year ago, after a failed attempt at a treatment at a facility in California.
"It was just like I was another number to them, really."
O'Neill says here, he gets one on one time with Hardage. He refers to Hardage as his mentor and friend. In addition to what he calls "reflection time," O'Neill says he spends his days reading, watching movies and running errands with Hardage and his 8-year-old son.
Hardage says O'Neill is on a successful path, even though he's relapsed multiple times. On the day of our visit, O'Neill told us it was his seventh day sober.
Kimberly Stephens, also a client, told us she was on day ten of sobriety.
"There’s still anxiety, but in terms of how I feel, my body has probably not felt healthier in a very long time," said Stephens.
Her drug of choice was alcohol. She says she entered the program on December 31, 2013.
"I can honestly say he saved my life."
Where Hardage goes, she goes.
"We’re with Nathan 24-7," said Stephens. "If he has a client that has a need in Colorado, we go to Colorado... We load up and we go to Iowa."
That's where Tana Kelce met Hardage.
"I was looking at burying my son because he couldn't stop on his own," said Kelce.
She met Hardage through a mutual friend.
"He said he could help my son."
Hardage told Mel and Teresa Armstrong, who live in Urbandale, the same thing.
"He agreed to take my son, with no payment up front because he said he was in it to help the boys. It wasn’t about the money."
At least it wasn't about the money right away. It wasn't long and Hardage asked for a "down payment." Teresa's parents wrote him a check for $5,000. A few weeks later, he asked them to sign a contract requesting payment of $25,000.
Kelce wasn't asked to sign a contract, but she did pay Hardage $3,000. She says at first, it appeared the treatment was worth every penny.
"He was smiling - I saw my child again. So, I thought everything was going great.”
Kelce took heart in her son, Kaleb's posts on Hardage's Facebook page. The comments centered on Kaleb's sobriety and his new-found belief in God. Kelce raved about Hardage every chance she got. She even contacted celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres in an attempt to raise money for Hardage.
But then she received a text from her son.
"My son told me that Nathan assaulted him and had been arrested."
Hardage denies he assaulted Kelce's son.
"He was actually going through some really bad withdrawals one day. I was holding him accountable," said Hardage. "He kind of freaked out so I restrained him."
But the alleged assault wasn't Kelce's only concern.
"Kaleb has not told me the very first week he was with Nathan, Nathan had him around people who were smoking pot, right in front of him."
Kelce and the Armstrongs say Hardage also allowed their sons to drink alcohol.
When asked he allows his clients to drink, Hardage said, "Not really, no. I allow them to make a decision on whether they want to drink or not."
Hardage says exposing his clients to pot is part of what he calls "exposure therapy."
“Right now, in Colorado marijuana is legal. You go into a place, people are smoking marijuana. Do I take them in there, yeah, I do. Yeah I take them in there and I make them watch."
Jeffrey Gronstal, a Health Facilities Officer with the Iowa Department of Health, which licenses substance abuse programs, says Hardage's treatment program is not only unconventional, it's "scary."
"I’m not sure what exposure therapy means, in terms of a clinical approach to treatment."
Gronstal says the program may also be illegal.
"If you’re going to offer a substance abuse program, you have to be licensed."
Hardage admits he doesn't have a license or an education in substance abuse therapy. He says his experience as an addict makes him qualified to counsel other addicts.
"Yeah, there are people who are skeptical. I’ve been accused of being a drug dealer. I’ve been accused of being a fraud and that’s fine, that’s fine and dandy, but they’re not hurtin’ me. They’re hurting the person who needs help.”
Kelce and the Armstrongs say Hardage is hurting those who need help - and their families. Remember Hardage's promise about being with clients 24-7? Kelce and the Armstrongs pulled their sons out of the program when they found out Hardage had put them up in hotel rooms - alone.
"I have been through everything with my son, to the point I have slept by his bed to make sure he was okay when he was going through detox," said Teresa Armstrong. "He's taking advantage of desperate people."
"I’m embarrassed, I feel like I was foolish. I feel like I have harmed my son again," said Kelce as her eyes welled up with tears. "And all I was trying to do was save his life."
A Sidenote: The day this story aired, Kimberly Stephens contacted us to say she'd left "The Wounded Healer" program. She called it a "complete facade." She told us Hardage left her home alone for hours at a time, took her to bars, where he and his girlfriend drank and forced her to write letters to her family, praising the treatment.
Stephens says the treatment consisted primarily of watching TV and reading. She believes her family paid $15,000 for the 27-days she spent in the program.
The Iowa Department of Health is now investigating at least one complaint against Hardage. Jeffrey Gronstal says in cases like this, a cease and desist letter is sent to the program operators. If they continue to operate without a license, criminal charges can be filed.
There are more than a hundred licensed substance abuse programs in Iowa. You can find a list of them here.