Candler Living Center, a facility for mentally ill and disabled adults outside Asheville, N.C., contracted with Recovery Connections for workers. It houses nearly 30 residents. Credit: Nancy Pierce for Reveal

Former patients of the drug rehab program Recovery Connections Community are demanding  back pay for years of free work they performed as caregivers in adult care homes across North Carolina, according to a new federal lawsuit filed against the program and care homes.

“For years, Defendants have escaped public oversight and accountability in profiting from unpaid labor performed by individuals struggling to overcome substance abuse and addiction,” according to the complaint filed Thursday. Rather than providing drug treatment, the lawsuit said Recovery Connection Community’s purpose was to operate as “a for-profit business by staffing adult care homes and other enterprises with labor.”

The lawsuit comes in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting which found patients in the program regularly worked more than 80 hours per week in adult care homes without pay, while the program’s founders, Jennifer and Phillip Warren, used the rehab program to fuel a lavish lifestyle.

The two-year residential rehab program near Asheville caters to poor and desperate people struggling with addiction. To pay for their stay, participants must work full-time jobs and surrender their pay. Participants were often sent by courts and probation officers as a condition of their probation. Former participants told Reveal they received little addiction help, instead toiling for long hours at care homes and a chain of Zaxby’s restaurants across North Carolina.

The class action complaint, filed by former participants Kimberly Myris and Andrew Presson, alleges the program and more than half a dozen contracted businesses violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay participants for their work.

The businesses paid Recovery Connections a “sub-market rate” for the workers, despite knowing that rehab patients worked long hours and wouldn’t receive any pay for their work, the complaint said. The rates were so low, the complaint said, that they threatened to drive down wages for the entire industry. The businesses also were barred from hiring anyone who left the program early, leaving former participants immediately unemployed.

“The way they’re doing things is not ethical, it’s just not right how people are treated because they’re in a vulnerable position,” Andrew Presson said in an interview.

Presson and Myris said they worked excessive hours and endured months of abuse at Recovery Connections before leaving the program earlier this year. Presson worked 80 to 90 hours a week, while Myris worked an average of 119 hours a week in contract jobs without pay.

In addition to the grueling work schedules, Myris and Presson described squalid conditions and psychological abuse in the rehab program. At one of the rehab’s residences, neither the air conditioner nor heater worked, the water smelled of sewage, and holes in the floor allowed insects and feral cats to roam freely, according to the complaint. Program participants were required to turn over their food stamps to the Warrens, yet never had enough food to eat, Presson and Myris said.

During the program’s group therapy sessions, the Warrens verbally abused Presson “and required his co-residents to surround him in a circle and scream insults at him,” according to the lawsuit.

“Eventually it came to the point — this place is going to drive me nuts and it’s going to make me do something I don’t want to do,” Presson recalled he felt, before leaving the program earlier this year.

Jennifer and Phillip Warren did not respond to requests for comment. None of the contracted businesses responded to calls and emails for comment.

The lawsuit also alleges that Recovery Connections engaged in deceptive business practices by falsely advertising itself as a recovery program without providing “any bona fide substance abuse education, counseling, training, or other professional services,” the complaint said.

The Warrens sought out patients, knowing that their “struggles with substance abuse made them vulnerable to deceptive practices.” The suit also says the Warrens personally benefited from the unlawful labor arrangement, using the money to “fund elaborate vacations to Greece, France, French Polynesia, Puerto Rico, and New Orleans.”

The Department of Labor previously investigated Recovery Connections in 2013 and found that the program violated federal labor law by failing to pay participants minimum wage and overtime. Jennifer Warren refused to pay back wages to participants, but promised labor investigators she would comply with labor law in the future. The department never followed up, and Recovery Connections continued to put patients to work without pay for at least five more years.

At least 10 criminal and regulatory probes have been launched in response to Reveal’s reporting.

Recovery Connections is one of a number of drug rehab programs across the country that requires participants to work for for-profit companies, from chicken processing plants to a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Oklahoma.

Do you have experience with a program we should know about? Send us a tip, or if you’re a journalist, join Reveal’s local reporting network to begin reporting on a rehab near you.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@revealnews.org, and Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @amyjharris and @shoeshine.

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.