Therapy sessions that last 50 hours. Sessions that involve garbage bags, screaming, even getting sprayed with water to stay awake. Jason Pulliam testified to this in a 2008 deposition. "They call you everything,” he said. He told of being put in a room, he couldn’t get up, trash bags were on the window. He said, “You don’t know what time of day it is.”
In 2010 at least five other patients at Recovery Ventures told state inspectors of similar therapy sessions.
The therapeutic director of Recovery Ventures at the time, Jennifer Warren, said in a 2010 deposition, “I wouldn’t say it's verbal abuse, it’s done with the purpose of helping people identify their issues.” She called it an “incredible healing opportunity.”
On follow up state reports the rehab promised to stop the practice until it had medical evidence to prove its benefit. Yet, eight years later patients say these kind of confrontational therapy sessions continue.
“I had relapsed when I was there,” said Tommy Parker who went in 2015. “When that happened all of them took turns yelling at me.”
Parker said this was more harmful than helpful. Studies have backed this up. Including a review of four decades of studies about confrontational therapy strategies for therapeutic effects. It found that patients often reported harmful outcomes like relapse and drop-out of programs.
But that wasn’t Parker’s only concern while at Recovery Ventures.
“One of the crazy things they did, the residents called it fight night,” he said.
Parker says men in the program would put chairs in a circle and take turns confronting each other. There were two rules: no violence and no racial slurs.
“There would be guys just screaming at each other, like in their faces because they didn’t replace the toilet paper roll or they spilt some crumbs on the ground and didn’t pick them up,” Parker said. “It was intense.”
Parker said he got yelled at when he relapsed during his time at Recovery Ventures.
“When that happened all of them took turns doing that to me.” He said his peers screamed at him, “‘You’re selfish. How could you do this? You’re giving us a bad name.’”
Recovery Ventures is a licensed drug treatment rehab – and that means inspectors with the state health department come out and evaluate it once a year. In 2010, inspectors raised concerns about therapy practices saying they violated clients' rights and weren’t recommended by medical professionals. There’s been no mention of these practices in reports since.
The health department reviews health and safety of the buildings, treatment plans, whether patients are taking medicines, whether staff are qualified and trained and other things. Stephanie Gilliam, with the state health department licensing division, said inspectors could ask about other conditions including the work patients are doing.
“We start with open ended questions about how consumers are treated and what their day is like and then go from there,” she said.
But Gilliam said health department officials don’t always interview patients alone. Sometimes staff are in the room to support the consumer. Gilliam said if someone’s working too many hours or thinks the jobs are not therapeutic they should file a complaint.
Health department records show at least 15 complaints about Recovery Ventures since 2010 ranging from failure to protect patients from abuse and neglect - to not having nutritious meals.
I wanted to ask staff at Recovery Ventures about this practice. But they canceled one in person interview and didn’t return multiple follow up requests for interviews.
Of the patients WFAE spoke with, none said they spoke to regulators during visits. But the conditions at Recovery Ventures weren’t secret. Former patient Jason Pulliam initially sued the treatment center for labor violations, emotional distress and other claims in 2007. A judge sent him there for 18-months in 2005 instead of going to prison for drug related charges. Several months into his stay, his mother, Debra Davies, grew concerned.
“It was just a work camp,” Davies said. “He was working long hours a day. Sometimes no more than two or three hours of sleep. It was just working, working, working.”
Davies got a judge to order Jason’s removal. She said she wanted to expose Recovery Ventures’ practices. Jason’s attorney Alisa Mitchell Black found records showing Jason sometimes worked 16 to 18 hour days.
“I was just in such disbelief that someone could be treated that way in the spirit of rehabilitation and treatment for drug addiction,” she said.
The case ended up getting dismissed in 2011 after Black left the case to work another job. She says when she heard it was dismissed she was devastated and still thinks about the case. Jason’s mother said, more than 13 years later he still struggles with drug use.
While there are concerns about patients working without pay and getting confrontational group sessions, some say it worked for them. Brian Caraway went to Recovery Ventures in 2016 after getting a DWI.
“I wasn’t expecting to get paid,” Caraway said. “I was in no position to complain about the situation I was in. I knew that I screwed up and I knew what I was looking at. I was looking at prison time.”
Caraway says he was able to stay sober and did a lot of introspection during his few months at Recovery Ventures. He said he made good friends and keeps in touch. But Caraway said he wouldn’t necessarily recommend the place to others.
“You really have to have the right mindset to be in a place like that,” he said. “I kind of knew what to expect from a situation like that…you’re going to do what you’re told or you’re going to get in trouble. That’s how I grew up.”
While this style of treatment may help some, the president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine Dr. Paul Earley says those who are already fragile are often not helped by this practice.
“That kind of stuff, someone might get better with it,” Earley said. “For every one person get better, it hurts another 200 or 300. “
But Earley, who’s been treating people with substance dependence and addiction for more than three decades, said addiction and recovery are complicated and unlike a broken bone there is not one single way to recover.
“Completely bashing something is wrong because you never quite know what's going to work for people,” he said.
There’s another lawsuit about this type of rehab. This time it’s against another rehab nearby called Recovery Connections Community. One of its founders is Jennifer Warren, the former therapeutic director at Recovery Ventures. The suit complains of therapeutic practices similar to the 2007 case, and patients are seeking back wages for the time they worked without pay. The practices at Recovery Connections Community were the subject of earlier reporting by the program Reveal by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Clermont Ripley with the North Carolina Justice Center is one of the attorneys representing the former patients. One goal of the suit she said is to clear up the discrepancy between state rules which say patients can’t get money for their work and federal labor laws that establish minimum wage standards.
“Hopefully, we will get a judge to clear it up and make it really clear that when somebody works they are supposed to get paid for their work. And then it is their decision what to do with that money they are receiving,” she said.
Ripley hopes in addition to getting her clients their back pay, a ruling will impact other therapeutic communities operating the same way.