Recovery ministry planned for Chattooga County, Georgia, faces wrongful death lawsuit

A faith-based addiction recovery program planning a new facility in Chattooga County, Georgia, is being sued for wrongful death after one of its residents committed suicide in April of last year.

In a lawsuit filed this month, the family of Patrick Drew Lindsey, 28, claimed Pilgrim Ministries directed the man to stop taking medication prescribed to treat his schizophrenia.

"After Pilgrim Ministries removed some of Drew's medications," the lawsuit stated, "it failed to provide proper treatment or assessment of his mental illness, failed to properly monitor him, failed to provide information about the disadvantages of discontinuing medication and failed to refer him to a qualified mental health provider, even though Drew was exhibiting severe and worsening signs of mental illness."

Neighbors of the 50-acre site in Teloga, Georgia, where the new facility is planned, said they've heard about problems with Pilgrim's recovery program and said they think their rural neighborhood isn't suited for that kind of facility.

The lawsuit claimed that when Lindsey became severely depressed and began talking to himself, no one from the program attempted to get him to a qualified mental health care professional. The lawsuit requested a jury trial and states that the family is seeking damages from the Clarkesville, Georgia-based program.

Mike Walker, the attorney for the family, said Drew was working at Fieldale Farms in Eastanollee, Georgia, when he took his own life.

"We hope that Pilgrim changes their practices and starts considering their residents' mental health. We want to bring justice for Drew," Walker said in a phone interview.

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Andrew Pilgrim, the founder of the program, said in a phone interview he couldn't comment on the lawsuit.

"It's in the hands of the lawyers now," he said.

He was willing to discuss the controversy with neighbors and plans for the 32-resident facility, a program that aims to use Christian faith and discipleship to overcome drugs and alcohol.

The ministry recently had the property surveyed, cleared the timber to raise money for the program and is preparing to site the septic tank and structures, he said. Bids for contractors should go out towards the end of the year, Pilgrim said, and building should begin next year.

Pilgrim said the ministry runs out of three residential houses in Clarkesville and currently has 16 people in the program. The program does not accept residents who are sex offenders or violent criminals, nor those who have severe mental issues. In addition, all residents must pass a health screening.

On Pilgrim's website is a list of items allowed to be brought to the ministry, and another list of items not allowed.

Allowed is "Medication (blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, allergies, indigestion, etc...)," but second on the prohibited items list and the only item underlined: "NO anti-psychotic or narcotic medication allowed."

Also on Pilgrim's website is the program's belief about addiction. Addiction is not a disease, their website states, but is a result of "the bondage of sin" that can be overcome.

Pilgrim said the facility has succeeded in winning over its Clarkesville neighbors, through the facility's residents helping the community by mowing yards, building wheelchair ramps and painting houses for those in need. He said the ministry plans on doing work for the community in Trion as well.

"I mean, time will heal wounds," Pilgrim said. "When we get there and get established, they'll see we're no threat to the community. We'll be a blessing."

Over the program's 17-year history, Pilgrim said about half of the 400-500 participants in the program never go back to being incarcerated. It's a work-based Christian program, and he said after the first six months residents are required to get a job. Some residents come voluntarily, Pilgrim said, and some join the program as a condition of their court sentence.

Willys Hames lives on 3.5 acres next to the Pilgrim property. He said he doesn't have a problem with that kind of faith-based recovery program. But he claims program leaders didn't talk with the community on the front end. He also thinks the facility isn't suited to the rural community.

In a phone interview, Hames said he's been clean for 15 or 16 years after completing a 15-month recovery program through Teen Challenge's facility in Pensacola, Florida, which he said is similar to Pilgrim's program.

"It's kind of ironic," Hames said. "I got nothing against those type of programs, they work."

Willys' wife Lacey Hames said she thinks the facility will need to upgrade its country road for the extra vehicle traffic, as well as upgrade water and power infrastructure. Sewage could be a problem too, she said, because all the facility's neighbors have septic systems.

"I've exerted so much energy, anger, and time - we are just sick of dealing with it," Willys Hames said.

He added there was a heated community meeting with Pilgrim in early 2021.

"I've done everything I could do, and there's nothing I can do to stop it besides raise Cain about it."

Even though Chattooga County doesn't have zoning laws, he said the state has building requirements that he plans to make sure are enforced.

Blake Elsberry, Chattooga County sole commissioner, said most of the discussion about Pilgrim coming to Chattooga County happened before he came into office. Even though there are no zoning laws in Chattooga County, Elsberry said he thinks the ministry should've talked to the community beforehand.

"In my opinion, and I told them that, even though they don't have zoning, it's still the responsibility of Pilgrim to have a discussion with the community of what they are doing," he said.

Developments must have a soil and water plan filed with the state, and he said Pilgrim is responsible for the costs of connecting to county infrastructure.

When it comes to the issue of drugs in the community, Elsberry acknowledges that it's a problem in the county.

"Drugs are everywhere," he said.

There are no brick-and-mortar treatment facilities in the area, he said, but there are two or three nonprofit treatment programs that cover Chattooga County and a few other surrounding counties.

(READ MORE: New freestanding emergency department planned for Chattooga County, Georgia)

At the heated community meeting, Pilgrim said he was planning on reading letters of recommendation from the police chief and sheriff where the program's other three houses are located, as well as a real estate agent neighbor - but was shouted down.

"Not many people would've stuck around to be talked to like that," he said.

Pilgrim said he would be willing to have another meeting with concerned neighbors but would want it moderated by someone who could make sure it was productive and everyone could be heard.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.