She said she’d free them from addiction. She turned them into her personal servants
Jennifer Warren has spent years recruiting the poor and desperate to her drug rehabilitation program in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina.
She promised them counseling and recovery for free. When they arrived, she put them to work 16 hours a day for no pay at adult care homes for the elderly and disabled.
Thrust into the homes with little training or sleep, the rehab participants changed diapers, bathed patients and sometimes dispensed the same prescription drugs that sent them spiraling into addiction in the first place.
For some, the temptation proved too great. They snorted prescription pain pills, swallowed droplets of morphine from used medical syringes and peeled fentanyl pain patches off patients and sucked them to get high.
Then there were the allegations of assault. At least seven participants from Warren’s program, Recovery Connections Community, have been accused of sexual misconduct or assault of patients at the homes. Former participants and workers said no one reported the incidents to social services, as required by law. The accused continued working or were simply transferred to another care home.
“There’s a whole lot in the program that’s covered up,” said Charles Polk, who completed Warren’s program in 2017 for alcohol addiction. “The only thing she thinks about is the money.”
Amid a nationwide opioid epidemic, treatment remains out of grasp for most people struggling with addiction. Those with wealth and insurance often are able to pay thousands of dollars for private long-term programs. But the less fortunate have become easy prey for rehabs with a tantalizing promise: freedom from addiction for free.
To pay for their stay, participants must work full-time jobs and surrender their pay. An ongoing investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that many programs exploit this arrangement, providing few actual services while turning participants into indentured servants.
In North Carolina, Warren has turned her nonprofit rehabilitation program into her personal empire. She worked the people in her program to exhaustion, while regularly vacationing in places such as Paris, Greece and New Orleans for Mardi Gras, according to former participants and state records. She diverted nonprofit donations meant for the program – appointments at beauty salons and concert tickets – to herself and used participants’ food stamps to stock her own kitchen.
In addition to working at adult care homes, the 40 or so men and women in Warren’s program have baby-sat her children, cared for hundreds of her exotic pets and cleaned her house.
“It’s like slavery,” said Denise Cool, who was addicted to crack cocaine when a judge ordered her to the rehab in 2011, “like we were on the plantation.”
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
Even after being stripped of her counseling license in 2012, Warren continued to operate her program with impunity. Authorities from four separate state agencies neglected complaints, botched investigations and stood by for years as Warren flouted rules they were supposed to enforce.
It was not until Reveal questioned state officials about their inaction that they began taking steps to curb the abuses.
Warren, who is 51 years old, declined to answer questions from Reveal.
“I have no reason to believe that you will report anything positive about our program or are interested in the people’s success stories, of which there are many,” Warren wrote in an email.
When confronted by a former participant in a private Facebook message in February, Warren responded, “It’s so easy to buy into the negativity.”
“Because of the structure of this kind of program, many people leave with resentments and are disgruntled,” she wrote in the message, obtained by Reveal. “I have spent the majority of my adult life trying to give back.”
Founded in 2011, Recovery Connections Community has grown to include three locations, run from rural homes near Asheville and Raleigh.
Hundreds of people have sought help from Recovery Connections over the years. Many are sent there by the courts as an alternative to prison. Others come directly from hospitals, mental health facilities and state-funded detox centers.
Whitney Richardson was addicted to heroin and facing prison time for burglary when a North Carolina judge ordered her to complete the two-year program in 2014 as part of a plea agreement.
Judges and probation officers weren’t supposed to use unlicensed rehabs such as Recovery Connections for treatment. And the rehab specifically had been on probation officials’ radar. In internal emails, one official said it was “a bad agency and is run by dangerous people.”
Richardson fled four months later. She was so scarred by the experience that she vowed never to attend rehab again. When she later relapsed, she said she got herself clean by buying Suboxone on the street.
“It’s not right to take advantage and subject people to abuse like that when they’re trying to better their lives,” Richardson said. “No one should ever go to that place.”