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

Note: This post is being regularly updated with responses.

For years, North Carolina officials looked the other way while a rogue drug rehab program exploited people struggling with addiction and put disabled patients at risk, according to our new investigation.

More from All Work. No Pay.

Recovery Connections Community, a two-year rehab program near Asheville, sent participants to work as unpaid caregivers at adult care homes throughout the state. Participants got little addiction help, but were ordered to work 16-hour days caring for elderly and disabled patients, often with disastrous results.

As we began questioning public officials about their inaction, things began to change.

Here’s a rundown so far of response to Reveal’s reporting:

North Carolina’s governor called Recovery Connections a “horrific scheme” and ordered a crackdown.

Here’s Gov. Roy Cooper:

This is a horrific scheme that preys on people at their lowest.  State mental health and probation/parole officials are no longer referring people to this program and I’ve directed the departments of Health and Human Services and Public Safety to continue to find ways to stop this scheme from happening again and enlist other state agencies to do the same.  Schemes like this one give a bad name to other legitimate groups that provide substance abuse help. People working to recover from addiction need better access to real treatment and that’s why my proposed budget includes more money for effective treatment and recovery supports.

The state’s top law enforcement officer launched a criminal investigation into Recovery Connections.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said  his office is coordinating criminal and regulatory investigations across numerous local and state agencies, including the District Attorney’s Office, the State Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Health and Human Services, among others. Stein’s agency is also investigating allegations of elder abuse.

His full statement:

I am extremely concerned about the allegations against Recovery Connections. Effective treatment is critical for people with substance use disorder. The idea that people coming to a program for help were victimized instead is sickening, as is the potential of elder abuse.

A scheme of this nature that crosses jurisdictions and agencies will require many of us working together. For that reason, I am talking to the District Attorney, the SBI, and the Department of Health and Human Services, among others. I also have launched an investigation into the claims of elder abuse. I will share updates as we make progress is seeking justice for those affected.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services ordered Recovery Connections to stop sending rehab participants to work as caregivers at adult care homes.

State law requires that staffing agencies for adult care homes be licensed and ensure that workers are trained and qualified. In response to our questions, the department determined that Recovery Connections was illegally operating as a staffing agency. The department sent a cease-and-desist letter to Recovery Connections, ordering the rehab to become licensed before sending participants to work at the homes. Recovery Connections is funded primarily from the contracts with the adult care homes, so the department’s crackdown potentially jeopardizes the rehab’s main source of funding.

The state Department of Public Safety banned anyone on probation from attending the rehab program.

Many people are sent to Recovery Connections by courts and probation officers as an alternative to prison. Even though probation officials said the rehab was “run by dangerous people,” for years they continued to allow probationers to attend. That’s no longer allowed. On May 8, probation officers issued a memo saying that no one on probation could attend because the rehab does “not align with our mission, vision, or goals.” Probation officers will begin looking for other places to send probationers who are currently in the program.

One of the adult care homes canceled its contract with Recovery Connections.

Rehab participants have worked at nine adult care homes across the state. In response to questions from Reveal, the Marjorie McCune Memorial Center, one of the program’s largest and oldest employers, canceled its contract with Recovery Connections. The home for disabled and elderly adults used rehab workers as caregivers and paid Recovery Connections $9 an hour for each worker.

“We have been made aware of the allegations against Recovery Connections Community,” administrator Frances Coates told Reveal. “We take those allegations seriously. We are investigating the matter and have no further comment.”

The North Carolina Secretary of State’s office is launching an investigation into diverted donations.

Numerous participants who went through Recovery Connections accused the founder, Jennifer Warren, of diverting nonprofit donations for herself, a potential violation of state law.

In North Carolina, any nonprofit that solicits donations is required to have a charitable solicitation license. If investigators find that Warren misused donations for herself, the program may lose that license and its ability to fundraise and solicit donations in the state.

“These are very troubling allegations and we are indeed going to be opening an investigation through our charitable solicitation licensing division,” spokeswoman Liz Proctor said.

The investigation could lead to fines and also serious criminal charges, which would be filed by the Attorney General’s Office, Proctor said.

A top administrator at Recovery Connections Community is under investigation for sexually harassing female patients in his program.

The North Carolina Substance Abuse Professional Practice Board launched the investigation following a Reveal story that uncovered seven allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by Phillip Warren, a licensed counselor and Jennifer Warren’s husband. The investigation could lead to the revocation of Phillip Warren’s license.

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.