Rehab clinic faces multiple NC investigations for forced labor, putting elderly at risk

This Dec. 21, 2017 photo shows the Candler Living Center in Candler, N.C., outside Asheville. It is named in a federal lawsuit brought by former residents of Recovery Connections Community.
This Dec. 21, 2017 photo shows the Candler Living Center in Candler, N.C., outside Asheville. It is named in a federal lawsuit brought by former residents of Recovery Connections Community. Reveal via AP Nancy Pierce

Attorney General Josh Stein and other state officials are investigating a drug and alcohol rehab center that faces allegations of forced labor, abuse, fraud and more. The North Carolina company operates clinics near Asheville and Raleigh.

The investigation comes on the heels of an article about the rehab company that was published by Reveal, a nonprofit news website run by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

According to that report, a company called Recovery Connections Community put its patients to work for free in adult care homes, charging the homes for their labor but not paying the patients for their work. Some of the patients told Reveal they worked 16-hour days for no pay and also received little to no training before going to work in those sensitive medical environments.

While at work the rehab patients themselves also sometimes got into trouble, stealing the types of opioids that had sent some of them down the path of addiction in the first place, or sexually abusing the elderly or disabled patients at these homes, Reveal reported.

“I am extremely concerned about the allegations against Recovery Connections," Stein said in a written statement to The News & Observer. "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."

Nine adult care homes use the rehab company's patients as workers, Reveal reported, including six in small towns outside of Asheville, one in a suburb of Winston-Salem and two in Angier.

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Stein said the N.C. Department of Justice is now working with the State Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Health and Human Services, and local prosecutors where the company operates. It has two clinics in or near Asheville in Buncombe County, and a third clinic just south of Raleigh, in the Harnett County town of Angier.

“A scheme of this nature that crosses jurisdictions and agencies will require many of us working together," Stein said.

And DHHS confirmed Friday to The News & Observer that it recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to the rehab company, as well as letters to the adult home care businesses that it contracts with.

The company's founder, Jennifer Warren, is no stranger to state regulators. Officials here have been aware of troubling accusations against her since at least 2008, for issues dating back to at least 2004, according to a state document. And Reveal reported that a state board that regulates substance abuse workers stripped her of two certifications in 2012, for actions she engaged in while employed at a different rehab clinic and, later, after founding Recovery Connections Community.

Warren couldn't immediately be reached for comment by The News & Observer. According to Reveal, she declined to be interviewed but did defend herself in a Facebook post.

"Because of the structure of this kind of program, many people leave with resentments and are disgruntled," Warren wrote, according to Reveal. "I have spent the majority of my adult life trying to give back."

That Facebook message did not appear on her publicly available page as of Friday. There are no recent public posts on her page, which says that she was born in California, graduated from Sanderson High School in Raleigh and then studied at several universities, including UNC-Wilmington, the University of Alabama and Appalachian State University. It's unclear if she received degrees from any of those universities, and if so in what fields.

Back in 2012, members of a state substance abuse regulatory board found numerous reasons to threaten Warren's substance abuse certifications.

A legal filing from the board against Warren, who was then named Jennifer Hollowell, stated that she had been sleeping with a client and taking donations of money, gifts and perks like salon appointments for herself even though they were meant for her patients. She was also accused of forcing her patients to do unpaid work around her house, even babysitting her children for days at a time while she went on vacation.

And, the board noted, recovering addicts who spent time at her rehab facilities were actually more likely to relapse the longer they spent with her.

It's unclear if the state regulatory board ever attempted to get law enforcement involved in its numerous accusations against Warren, although several years later in 2015 she pleaded guilty to food stamp fraud, which was one of the complaints the board had noted against her previously. She was sentenced to probation.

Now, in addition to the possible criminal investigations that Stein's office alluded to, Warren and her company could also face a civil lawsuit from the state if the company doesn't abide by DHHS' cease-and-desist letter.

Drug rehab facilities like Recovery Connections Community are not licensed by the state, which means it's not easy for the state to regulate them or shut them down. Chris Mackey, the communications director for DHHS, warned against making assumptions against all rehab clinics just because of the allegations against one company.

"There are other unlicensed facilities out there that do a great job," she said.

The lack of regulations means that DHHS can't do much about most of the allegations Reveal reported. However, DHHS isn't totally powerless. Its cease and desist letter, sent on May 16, states that Recovery Connections Community is violating state law by contracting its clients out as health care workers. That requires a special state "nursing pool" license, which the company does not have. The state can sue the company if it doesn't stop.

Another DHHS spokesman, Cobey Culton, said the agency is working with the other parts of state government to try to hold the company accountable.

"There is no single lead agency; rather, we are part of a multi-agency effort," he said. "Our activities will be focused on those areas for which we have authority and oversight."

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran