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This drug treatment center is really a forced labor camp, lawsuit alleges

Oct 9, 2018 / Media Coverage / Vice — Emma Ockerman

Patients at the Recovery Connections Community rehabilitation center thought they were enrolling in a proper residential drug recovery program nestled high in the Appalachian mountains. Instead, they say, they were made to live in filthy trailers, verbally abused, and forced into unpaid labor, just to stay enrolled.

Now, they’ve filed a federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of North Carolina, naming Recovery Connections Community and a number of local businesses, where patients say they were forced to work as contracted, low-cost laborers, as defendants. An investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal found in May that Recovery Connections Community would allegedly force its residents into working long, unpaid days at retirement homes, assisted living facilities, and fast-food restaurants in exchange for “free” treatment.

The drug and alcohol rehab industry is largely unregulated.

“Recovery Connections engaged in deceptive acts by advertising and holding itself out to the public as a substance abuse recovery support service provider when, in fact, its primary function was to carry on a for-profit business by staffing adult care homes and other enterprises,” the lawsuit, which seeks certified class action litigation for unpaid wages and overtime, alleges.

In the lawsuit, Andrew Presson alleges that from April to August of this year, he was forced to work between 80 and 90 hours each week to fulfill his duties for the rehab program — without receiving any minimum or overtime pay. Kimberly Myris alleges that from May 2017 to September 2018, she worked about 119 hours a week, or 17 hours per day, also without minimum or overtime pay. When she came home to the facility, things got even worse: “Unrepaired holes in the floors allowed unwelcome feral cats to enter the trailer and urinate on Myris’s bed,” the lawsuit alleges.

Reveal reported earlier this year that in the absence of legitimate addiction treatment, many people within the program continued to abuse the drugs and substances from which they had hoped to recover. There were allegations of assault, too. At least seven participants in the program have been accused of sexual misconduct or assault of fellow residents, according to Reveal, and the incidents were not reported to social services as required by lawThe former residents say Jennifer Warren, the operator of the program who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, had promised “free” treatment in exchange the exploitative labor.

Recovery Connections Community is spread across three locations, and many people are sent there for treatment as an alternative to prison, Reveal reported. Residents were asked to work mostly at homes for the elderly and disabled, often as untrained personal care aides.

But, the lawsuit alleges, they also tended to Warren’s personal needs, like taking care of her exotic pets and watching her children, in exchange for treatment. Warren and her husband — Phillip Warren, also named as a defendant in the suit — are also accused of using the workers’ paltry compensation to take luxe vacations to Greece and France, and Phillip has been accused of sexually harassing residents in the program, according to Reveal.

A person who answered the phone at the front desk at Recovery Connections Community who identified himself as Phillip but didn’t provide a last name declined to comment to VICE News on Tuesday.

In the wake of Reveal’s investigation, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has banned all probationers from attending the program, and the state’s attorney general launched an investigation into the operation in May.

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