Navigating the Fraudulent Sober Living Home Crisis
October 20, 2023
Gila River Indian News
For Vickie Alba, a Gila River Indian Community member from District 6, what started as an opportunity to further her career ended up as an up-close experience with a fraudulent sober living home. Alba told her story to the Gila River Indian News in an effort to make Community members aware of the dangers these fake business can create – dangers that also endangered Alba’s daughter Frances Schlater, a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians Tribe.
Earlier this year, the mother and daughter came across an ad on social media that offered tax preparation classes. “My mother and I decided to pursue them in hopes of me getting into a good career,” said Frances. “I genuinely just wanted to pursue my career and find something.”
The tax prep classes were held two to three times each week, offering discussions and packet work on becoming a tax preparer and how to provide customer service, said Schlater.
“However, the establishment itself was questionable,” Frances recalls. “I remember saying to my mother, ‘It seems kind of sketchy here.’”
Schlater explains that she brushed off her concerns because of the seemingly valuable services offered by the company, which included a certificate upon completion of the program. She completed the classes and ended up finding a job as a tax preparer. Both women’s personal information remained on file with the company. The organization eventually reached out to Vickie Alba after the company opened a sober living environment specifically for Native Americans.
“Since they knew that we were Native, they wanted me to give them some input and they were creating their website,” said Alba. “They said, ‘Well, if you’re looking for a job, we would really love for you to come work with us. We want to provide services to the Native American community. They’re highly underserved and we would just like to help them.’”
Alba adds, “I truly thought that they meant this.”
Alba, who holds a state certification in peer support, thought she might be of use in the organization, although the job position was for an “art therapist” – a role she had never done before and which she says lacked a job description. She recalls being invited for an informal job interview in a local park.
“Yes, I have a degree, but I’ve never done this type of work,” said Alba, who explained that to the company. “I’m not a counselor or a therapist or anything like that, (but) that didn’t seem to bother them.”
Alba was in school at the time and could only work one day each week. As she explains it, the organization agreed to work with her schedule. The mother adds that she previously worked for behavioral health facilities in the Valley, but those environments were far different from this particular place. As time went on, she says, those differences became clear.
“I can remember I was only there one day a week and I would go from one classroom, two hours with those clients and then they would actually drive me to another facility where there were other clients and I was there with them,” said Alba.
Alba says she believed it was a legitimate program providing a service to those in need, despite the lack of a written curriculum to follow and other staff members leaving as quickly as they were hired. Similar red flags began to follow as there were a fast increase in clients shared Alba.
“I’d go to work and we’d have like 20 or 30 new clients,” Alba explains, adding that she began to question where the new clients were coming from. She says she eventually found out that clients were being utilized to recruit more people.
“They were actually, you know, paying them and encouraging them to go out there and giving them incentives to bring in more people from the streets,” says Alba.
In legitimate sober living environments, the facilities typically provide safe housing and supportive, structured living conditions for those dealing with substance abuse.
Shortly after becoming employed with the program, Alba thought her daughter, Frances, who had been struggling with her mental health, might benefit from the place as well.
“They promised that she’d be okay there, that she could go to school, go to work,” Alba explained. “They were happy to have her, and I truly thought that they meant it. You know, I truly thought that, okay, it’s going to be okay. I’m here. I’ll be able to see her.”
Alba explains that many of the classes were being held in spaces around the Valley previously used for the tax preparation classes – including two classes in shopping plazas that lacked adequate space for such classes.
As Alba tells it, the actual “sober living homes” were situated in residential neighborhoods in two-story houses that were often bare. She says the vehicles used to transport clients were unidentifiable with such a business. Assuming that more furniture and amenities would be added soon, Alba says she tried to overlook those conditions, given that the organization was just starting out.
Alba adds that many of their employees were tasked with multiple roles and were underqualified for their positions – including the therapists who offered only 15-minute sessions with clients and YouTube videos on substance abuse. The program lacked basic needs and structure, says Alba, including regular meals and water for clients. Lunch often consisted of just pizza and soda.
“If you’re going to have people in a sober living environment, you should provide, in my mind, healthy food, healthy snacks, and plenty of water,” said Alba. She adds that it was her understanding that the owners and employees lived in the Phoenix area, but none of them had previous background working with tribal members.
According to her, they served many tribal members from at least 14 different tribes from around the country, including as far as Alaska.
When asked why she continued to work for the program, Vickie said, “I kept going back because I truly cared about the clients and I really felt like we bonded.”
Vickie’s daughter, Frances, experienced a much different side of the operation when she began staying in one of the homes. Frances, a college student, admitted herself into the facility thinking it might improve her mental health while allowing her to attend work and school.
However, she saw that staff was not always present and the poor living conditions attracted cockroaches. She saw pills scattered throughout the house, the backyard littered with cigarette butts and empty beer bottles, and a glass sliding door that had been shattered. Frances explains that many of the clients were afraid to speak up about these issues for fear of getting kicked out or in trouble.
She revealed that clients were permitted to leave on the weekends and were encouraged to recruit other tribal members by receiving compensation. She says that they also were allowed to continue using drugs and alcohol in the home. She recalled one client who was fed up and refused to recruit additional clients.
“These people are making money, so much money off of us, off of Native Americans who are vulnerable, who are desperate, who have mental health issues, who have addictions. And they’re just going to take anything,” said Schlater. “All I wanted was mental health services and safe residency, but somehow my mother and I got caught up in this loop to where they happen to be fraudulent.”
One morning during her stay, Frances says she became involved in an altercation with another client in the home who verbally abused her. “So I put my foot down and confronted her,” said Schlater, who asked the individual not to speak to her that way. The individual then became physically violent towards Frances, she says, pushing her to the ground and hitting her, causing a concussion, a black eye, back injury and multiple bruises.
Staff was not present at the time, says Schlater. Phoenix police became involved and treated it as a domestic violence situation. Both Frances and the individual were arrested and Frances was taken to the emergency room.
Afterwards, Vickie went to the home to find out more information about what happened and to retrieve her daughter’s belongings. She was then told by staff that Frances had started the fight, despite none of the staff being present to witness the altercation at the time.
“It was really hard for me to look at my daughter because she was covered in bruises from head to toe,” said Vickie Alba. “It makes me very sad because there are .. good places that will provide good care, but (we got) caught up in all of these lies.”
After she quit the company, Alba filed reports against the organization, which is being investigated. Schlater is still recovering from her injuries while continuing her education in medical billing and coding. Both Frances and her mother have received additional assistance from Gila River Health Care’s Behavioral Health Services, including counseling and therapy.
If you or a loved one have been affected by a fraudulent facility please call and report the site by dialing 211, dial 1 for English, and option 7 to report or receive services.
If an emergency or crime has taken place don’t hesitate to call 911. And for those seeking services related to addiction or mental health call the Gila River Health Care’s Behavioral Health Services at (520)-562-3321 ext. 7100.