Across the country, people struggling with addiction are being funneled into rehabs that promise recovery in exchange for free labor. But some of these rehabs are little more than work camps for private industry, they benefit companies like Coca-Cola, PetSmart, KFC, and Walmart.

They're are also havens for scam artists. Our latest investigation zeroes in on one rehab owner who put residents to work in adult care homes, charged them with cleaning her house, and made them tend to her exotic pets:


Comments: 749 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

sapphirechrome827 karma

How did you first get tipped off to this story?

AJreveal1990 karma

Thanks for the question! We started investigating this issue more than a year ago and it started with a simple question: where are drug courts and other diversion programs sending people for drug treatment? We learned that many courts were sending people to religious rehab programs. As we dug in more, we noticed that many of these religious programs described themselves as “self-supporting” and “free”, and discovered that meant that people in rehab had to work. Through lots of Google searches, we found Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery in Oklahoma, a residential rehab program, and learned that drug addicts were being forced to work for free in chicken processing plants, under threat of prison. Then we started backgrounding the directors of this rehab program and learned that they had ties to chicken companies. That’s when we knew we had a story. Since then, tips have poured in about other work-based rehabs.

bellrunner129 karma

This is just an anecdote from a random redditor, but a friend of mine had some run ins with religious rehab centers. He was in and out of the hospital and various rehab centers for substance abuse.

Long story short, he was straight up given an exorcism. Tied to the bet, "power of Christ compels you," 'holy' water spritzed at him, the whole deal. It was performed by the rehab director, to boot, not some random crazy nurse. This happened in California

shoeshine1837119 karma

We'd very much like to hear more about this place -- the name, at least. Send us an email and we'll look into it: [email protected].

PatrickIsAPersonToo550 karma

(1)What are some red flags when looking at rehab centers, and (2) do you have any success stories about helping the residents?

shoeshine1837692 karma

Hey Patrick, great questions.

The programs we’ve been writing about follow the same basic model: they’re long term and typically free, but participants have to work. They don’t receive any wages; their pay supports the rehab.

Many of the rehabs that follow this model use similar language to describe themselves. The program may say it’s “self-supporting,” or does not accept any state or federal funds. If they’re a nonprofit, they’re free, and they’re long-term, there’s a good chance they might be employing this business model. And this model, we have found, is easily abused and exploited, especially if the program is also unlicensed and therefore not subject to any regulatory oversight.

shoeshine1837438 karma

In terms of success stories, there have been many! Check out Amy Julia’s answer above. In Oklahoma, there were four class action lawsuits filed by former participants at two work-based rehabs, and a number of government investigations.

In response to our recent investigation in North Carolina, the state has opened numerous criminal and regulatory investigations into the program. Many people who went through the program feel validated, empowered and suddenly heard.

Here’s what one participant wrote to use following our story: “I want to say thank you. Thank you for giving a voice to people no one will believe and who need help. When I tried to tell my family what was going on, no one believed me because I had been a manipulative drug addict prior to coming to this program…Please don’t stop fighting for the truth and exposing this reality because these people don’t have a voice and they need one.”

eogreen284 karma

John Oliver's recent show on rehab centers was shocking to me.

shoeshine1837143 karma

Definitely worth a watch!

K41namor528 karma

When I was an addict I was on the streets. One morning I woke up in a weird house and I dont know how I got there. It was some kind of rehab place and they expected me to wake up and goto work for the night I stayed there. It was really scary actually. They made us all goto the basement and they had some guy speaking in tounges. I told them i had to use the restroom and I climbed through the drop down ceiling and ran out the front door.

Later I found out a bunch of people have woken up there. There is a company in Columbus that takes drunk people to a drunk tank for free if your on the street. I guess those same people would drop people off at this house if they found them sleeping outside.

Have you heard about anything like that in Columbus, Ohio?

shoeshine1837313 karma

Not sure that we have. Can you recall the name of the place? There are many places operating under this business model across the country. We're currently trying to quantify this, so any information you can provide is a big help. Here's our tip form:

K41namor214 karma

I will try to look on google earth and find the place. I remember the general area so it shouldn't be too hard then I will go to your tip form. Thanks for getting back to me and for looking into this stuff.

shoeshine1837100 karma

Absolutely. Let us know what you find.

Thesaurii162 karma

Buddy of mine a few years ago when I was on the streets said he used to make money going out, waking up homeless guys, and asking if they had Medicaid cards. If they did, he'd ask if they wanted a place to sleep, and enroll them in a rehab center. Then, naturally, these shitholes get to double dip - charging medicaid and getting free labor from random homeless people.

That sort of thing is bizarrely and unacceptably common in any city of a certain size.

shoeshine1837108 karma

If you know of another place we should look into, please email us or fill out our tip form:

My email: [email protected]

Trance354216 karma

Are you looking into the Salvation Army at all? While I'm a product of one of their rehabilitation centers, I "failed out" of the "work therapy" center I first went to. 10 hours per day spent in a vast warehouse, sorting donations, all for the room and board. Bedbugs were rampant, staff abuses commonplace: female staff keeping several male patients for sex, with the female patients in similar circumstances.

Thankfully I found another center, also Salvation army, which focused on healing, not capitalism. 10 years of sobriety later, I owe that second place a lot, but I still remember the first "work therapy" based location.

Thank you for your work. Addicts may not be very fun to work with, but we are still human.

shoeshine183797 karma

Thanks for sharing your experience! If you feel so inclined, feel free to drop more details in our tip form:

drcorndog124 karma

What reforms can be made to the overall addiction health care field to avoid issues with these and other forms of rehab?

shoeshine1837156 karma

Great question. Federal data shows that most people who need addiction treatment never get it. We’ve talked with a number of people involved in these conversations who point out problems in the addiction health care field.

For one, many people still lack health insurance, or have insurance plans that do not cover long-term programs that last several months, one year or longer. This is why so many low income people are ultimately referred to or ordered into these types of work-based rehabs. In North Carolina, for example, we learned that the budget for state-run rehab and detox centers had been slashed, and as a result, many social workers there were sending people into free, work-based programs. So one solution people have pointed to is finding a way to fund and expand more affordable treatment solutions.

Many of these work-based programs are unlicensed, often due to exemptions in state law. That means that the government agencies responsible for regulating and overseeing rehab programs have no way to enforce regulations or respond to complaints of abuse. In North Carolina, that had enormous consequences. The Department of Health and Human Services received complaint after complaint about the rehab featured in our latest investigation but each time they turned the other cheek because the rehab was deemed exempt from licensure.

Read our original investigation for more information on that case:

R0binSage91 karma

We have something like that here in Wyoming. You send your troubled kids out to a ranch for thousands a month and they end up using them for cheap farm labor. They’ve had their license from the state taken several times. They just rebrand and reopen. Have they come across your radar?

shoeshine183752 karma

Hi there! I'm not sure we've heard about this particular program. We'd be interested in looking into it. Feel free to email me at [email protected], or send us some more details via our online tip form:

BlutNacht63 karma

I'm intrigued. How did you get into investigative reporting, and where do you get information from regarding the issues that you investigate? Thanks.

shoeshine1837107 karma

Hi there! I started out as a night shift reporter covering crime for a daily newspaper called The Ledger, in Lakeland, Florida. I wrote multiple news articles daily, carried a police scanner and visited jail every night. I longed to write stories with more depth, that examined not just WHAT was happening, but HOW and WHY. These questions ultimately led me to investigative reporting.

The information we report comes from many different sources. Each story is different. For this project, we filed dozens of public records requests, examined thousands of pages of police reports, court records, regulatory inspections, investigations and complaints, and found and interviewed hundreds of people. We also had a number of internal records leaked to us from whistleblowers, such as financial documents. Social media helped us track down a lot of people who had attended the rehab programs we have been writing about, as well as current and former employees.

bbbukowski33 karma

Shout out to the Lakeland Ledger!

shoeshine183740 karma

Ledger forever!

inserthandlehere37 karma

Thanks for doing this. I had a friend who was looking into a rehab facility in California and at the last minute her family and I convinced her not to go. The circumstances surrounding it were VERY fishy. There was almost no information about them online. I even called the Better Business Bureau and State Secretary Office (and some others) and could not verify that the company was even an operating business with any documentation with the state. She had contacted them and they offered to fly her out there entirely for free (and her stay there would have been free) which may be normal but I also found suspicious. Anyway, she ended up not going. I was really scared she was going to end up being a victim of sex trafficking or something. She said when she called them to tell them she was not coming after all they literally just hung up on her. Makes me SO scared for other people who may be in her shoes but with less support. Given your background, does any of this sound familiar in terms of the process of how these "rehab" centers get people? Now I am wondering if it was something along the lines of what you have described (sorry for the novel).

shoeshine183711 karma

Hey there! Would be great to know the name of the place you're describing. Feel free to post here or email me at [email protected]. We found that there are many rehabs that are exempt from state licensure and can legally operate in the shadows.

smilbandit9 karma

I first read the title and thinking it was people doing janitorial work in the rehab, but it's so much worse.

What's the worse "job" these people are forced to do that you've come across?

shoeshine183722 karma

Yes, they sometimes do janitorial work but they're primarily responsible for caregiving tasks like bathing patients, changing diapers and feeding them. They also sometimes dispense medications. They're not supposed to do either of these jobs without proper training and certification. We found this especially disturbing because it not only put the rehab participants at risk -- it put patients at risk. And indeed, the arrangement has proven disastrous.

We came out with a story last year about a rehab that was forcing participants to work in chicken plants for free. Chicken processing plants are notoriously dangerous for workers. We found rehab participants who were badly injured in the program, kicked out and then sent to prison because they could no longer work. Meanwhile, the program filed their workers compensation claims and kept the payouts.

One of the men we interviewed was sent to the program by a judge to teach him a "work ethic." He didn't have a drug problem, but was accused of buying a stolen horse trailer. One day at the plant, he broke his hand in a conveyer belt. He was forced to leave the program and go to prison. He now says he's addicted to prescription pain killers because he never received adequate medical care for his hand.

You can read more about that here:

commandrix9 karma

What do you think the number-one reason that these rehabs get away with this is?

shoeshine183724 karma

There are a lot of different reasons (both commenters below have touched upon them). One is that many of these programs are exempt from licensure via state laws, so there is no state agency responsible for regulating them and investigating certain types of abuses. Sometimes these state laws are exemptions designed for religious programs. Other times, they're for programs that are not offering "medical" treatment. These laws differ from state to state.

I think there is a tendency, too, to very quickly dismiss people who are struggling with addiction, as well as people who are in the criminal justice system, as if their complaints are not valid or credible. People in power often do not take the time to listen to them.

In Oklahoma, we found a religious rehab program called Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery was forcing participants to work for free in chicken processing plants, manufacturing chicken for KFC, Walmart and Popeyes. They were frequently injured and labored under threat of prison, even though many had never been convicted of crimes (a potential violation of the 13th Amendment ban on slavery, according to legal experts). They also were forced go to church and bible study.

This program was exempt from licensing requirements in part due to intervention by one of its board members - a state lawmaker. He wrote an exemption into state law that allowed CAAIR to avoid oversight completely. Here's a link to that story:

That program is still operating today, and remains unlicensed.

justscottaustin-3 karma

Why do you feel true nuts and bolts investigative journalism basically no longer exists?

shoeshine18378 karma

I don’t feel this way and neither should you! Despite some very big challenges in the news industry today, there is an astounding amount of stellar investigative reporting going on, in newsrooms big and small, across the country.

Here are some resources for you: -Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has a weekly podcast and news website with regular investigative content. Sign up for our newsletter and get updated on all the latest: -Local Matters, a weekly newsletter featuring some of the best investigative reporting from local newsrooms. -Investigative Reporters and Editors has a website chock-full of investigative stories and resources.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I encourage you to read and support investigative journalism. It is not cheap and it’s not easy, but it makes a difference.