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

For years, Jennifer Warren openly flouted federal labor law. She forced patients in her drug rehab program to work 80 hour weeks for free as caregivers in assisted living facilities across North Carolina.

Then in 2013, a reckoning came. The federal Department of Labor told Warren she was breaking the law and ordered her to pay her patients minimum wage and overtime for their work. Warren promised to comply in the future.

But that never happened, according to federal records obtained by Reveal. For at least five more years, Warren ignored labor laws and forced her patients to work for free to fund her lavish lifestyle. The records show no indication that the Department of Labor ever followed up.

The Department of Labor’s botched crackdown is yet another example of how Warren has managed to dodge accountability, despite years of abuse and numerous attempts by state and federal authorities to reel her in. Each time, the investigations largely went nowhere, and Warren escaped unscathed.

A recent investigation by Reveal found Warren regularly worked her rehab clients at Recovery Connections Community more than 80 hours per week without pay, while using the rehab program to enrich herself. Because of Reveal’s reporting, Warren and Recovery Connections Community are now the subject of more than 10 regulatory and criminal investigations in North Carolina.

Even with the spotlight on her, Warren has continued to escape accountability. In May, the state demanded that Warren stop operating her program like an unlicensed staffing agency, and told the adult care homes to stop using her rehab participants as staffers. But four months later, she continues to send clients to work.

Jennifer Warren did not respond to requests for comment. Phillip Warren, her husband and the rehab’s operation director, declined to answer questions, but wrote in an email: “You are a joke! Your organization is a joke! And your ‘stories’ are fiction.” 

Jennifer Warren is shown in a 2015 booking photo after she was caught illegally collecting thousands of dollars’ worth of food stamps. Credit: Buncombe County Bureau of Identification

The Department of Labor declined to comment.

Our ongoing investigation has found that many rehabs like Warren’s are little more than work camps for private industry. They promise to cure addiction with work. In reality, many of them provide little treatment and exploit their desperate clients.

The federal labor investigation into Recovery Connections Community began after Jessica Kurz, a former participant, complained in 2013.

She told us she did not receive any treatment or counseling while in the program; it was mostly work. Kurz told federal investigators that she worked at nursing facilities, a food service and a motel six or seven days a week for almost a year, without pay.

“I worked double shifts,” she said. “I had hell up there.”

Warren told investigators that the work was a part of the patients’ treatment, and that Kurz and other participants worked to “get back on their feet” and to help pay for their room and board.

More from ALL WORK. NO PAY.

But the Department of Labor told Warren that wasn’t allowed. Like regular employees, Warren’s clients had to be paid. Under the requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Warren was allowed to withhold some of their wages to cover the cost of food and lodging. But any additional wages, plus overtime, had to go to her patients. Investigators told her she owed nearly $20,000 in back wages to 20 participants.

Warren refused to pay, saying “she did not know how long she would be able to keep the doors open,” according to the records. Going forward, she promised to stop working residents more than 40 hours per week and agreed to follow labor laws. But as soon as federal regulators left, Warren continued to work patients 80 hours a week, and kept all their pay.

She never faced any consequences from the Department of Labor.

The lack of accountability disappoints Kurz.

“She shouldn’t be doing this. Period,” Kurz said. “I wish they had closed the whole thing down so that other people don’t get treated the way we were.”

After our investigation, Gov. Roy Cooper called Recovery Connections “a horrific scheme that preys on people at their lowest” and ordered a statewide crackdown. Several adult care homes canceled their contracts with the program.

But four former participants told Reveal that participants continue to work more than 40 hours a week at three of the homes, and that Recovery Connections is still keeping their pay. Instead of paying Recovery Connections directly, the care homes are now issuing individual paychecks to clients, who are then required to sign them over to the program, according to several former participants.

“I said, ‘I’m not signing anything,’” said Andrew Presson, who left the program last month. “They were cashing my paychecks without my authorization.”

Other participants also objected to the constant work and having to surrender their paychecks.

“They don’t care about the people there at all,” said Trent Smith, who said the rehab cashed his paycheck. He left the program  several weeks ago. “They just want the money.”

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.