In other states, no one still on probation for such a crime would be able to work as the director of a rehab where other people with other drug offenses had been ordered by a judge.
In other states, judges and the general public wouldn’t be in the dark on essential facts about the rehab programs used by the courts, such as how many people are sent to those facilities for treatment — rather than to prison — and how often those people wind up back in court because of drug problems.
But in Alabama, all of these things can happen.
Last month, the director of a residential addiction treatment center in Oxford was jailed for violating the terms of her own probation on drug charges. Court records say she tested positive for a prescription drug she didn’t have a doctor’s permission to use. Her probation report says she’s suspected of providing drugs to the addicts under her care.
Probation officers showed up at Real Life Recovery on May 31 to drug-test all of the people there after hearing rumors that the director had been “giving or selling pills to resident addicts at the rehab,” according to a probation report. It’s unclear exactly how long Sherri Jill Pendergraft had served as the director of Real Life Recovery, a rehab where some local judges send drug offenders, even though it is not certified by the state.
What is clear: Pendergraft had pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge in 2010 and was still serving out probation even as she supervised others with addiction issues.
Her case underscores one of the main concerns some mental health experts have about uncertified rehabs: No one really knows much about them, from basic details about who’s providing the care to more nuanced information about treatment plans and success rates.
And, while judges order offenders to rehabs rather than prison as a way to cope with rampant overcrowding, no one keeps track of how many people are actually in these residential programs.
“There’s no real way to do that, although each probation officer has an idea of how many they have in rehab,” said Ed Turner, the man who oversees probation offices in Calhoun, Etowah and Cleburne counties. “But it fluctuates so frequently.”
Reality about ‘running tallies’
Just as Department of Corrections officials are required to keep tabs on every person in the state prison system, officials with the Department of Mental Health say they are required by law to certify and monitor all residential rehab programs used by the courts.
In reality, judges in Calhoun County and across the state say it’s necessary to allow drug offenders to be placed in uncertified programs. They can’t send them to prison; built for only 13,400 inmates, the prison system now holds more than 27,000. And there are too few certified rehabs — many with lengthy waiting lists — for judges to only send offenders to those, they say.
But no one — including local judges and probation officers, as well as state officials with the Department of Mental Health and Board of Pardons and Paroles — retains records of exactly how many offenders are in rehabs as part of a court order.
“I don’t keep a running tally program of how many I have in there,” Calhoun County Circuit Judge Malcolm Street said of drug defendants he’s sent to rehabs. “I couldn’t give a figure or truthfully say.”
No regulation, no clue
That information has to come from the rehab centers themselves. It’s not hard to obtain from a certified facility like Anniston Fellowship House, which already keeps track of those numbers as a requirement of certification.
But rehabs that aren’t certified don’t follow the same guidelines as those that are — including requirements to make public data about the number of people in a particular program, the care provided by that program, the backgrounds of people responsible for that care and other information that allows officials to determine whether a facility is effective in treating people whose addictions have led them to commit crimes.
Whether to release any of that information is up to the operators running those facilities, especially if they are private corporations that don’t have to publicly disclose annual revenues and expenses.
That’s a problem, mental health experts say.
“In general, the big issue I would be worried about is if nobody is evaluating whether these programs are effective — with offenders in particular,” said Dr. Peter Delany with the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.
The chairman of the Parole Commission in Maryland, a state featured in a national study as one with an effective treatment system for drug offenders, David Blumberg said it’s impossible to know whether a rehab is working if it’s not monitored and held to public standards that ensure proper treatment.
“We would not put anybody in something that wasn’t licensed, because we would not know what kind of treatment they are getting or anything,” he said.
Neither would officials in one of Alabama’s neighboring states. In Georgia, all of the residential or out-patient rehabs that serve court-ordered defendants are certified programs, run by the state Department of Corrections.
No drug offenders are sent to unregulated programs, according to Dabney Weems, a public relations specialist with the Georgia corrections department.
When uncertified programs in Alabama are open about their practices, it is possible to get a snapshot of the number of drug offenders ordered there and the kind of treatment that program offers. For example, court-ordered defendants comprise about 63 percent of the patients at the Center of Hope, one of the largest faith-based, unlicensed rehabs in Calhoun County. Executive Director Garry Burns estimates 141 of the 222 people in the program have been sent there by the courts.
But often, local probation officers and judges have to rely on information passed along by word-of-mouth to understand what’s going on behind closed doors at an uncertified rehab. Court officials also have some firsthand knowledge of these rehabs based on the one-time “home visits” that probation officers are required to make for every offender they monitor.
Still, the infrequency of those visits and the high ratio of offenders to probation officer mean the rehab facilities can go mostly unmonitored, at least for a while.
Alabama’s 461 probation officers oversee thousands of drug offenders who reside in rehab centers and at their own homes scattered across the state. In Anniston, each of the nine probation officers oversees about 180 offenders. About 40 new offenders are added to their caseloads each month as other offenders cycle out of the system. Some of those cycle out because they’ve successfully finished probation; others drop out of the caseload because they’ve violated their probation terms or committed new crimes, landing them back in prison.
“We have run into some of (the rehabs) that have just been money-making places,” Turner said. “We have had some where they (the courts) weren’t notified if someone was using drugs at the facility.”
A rehab director’s history
Officials only discovered Pendergraft’s alleged illegal activities as the Real Life Recovery director, court records show, after they decided to follow up on four months’ worth of complaints received first by the probation office and later by Circuit Judge Debra Jones.
Eventually, Turner pointed out, probation officers try to investigate all claims of abuse at local rehab facilities.
When Pendergraft was arrested on May 31, she tested positive for benzodiazepine that wasn’t prescribed to her, the probation report stated. And a search of her room and the medicine cabinet she had access to “revealed numerous medications as well as some prescription-only meds that belonged to residents that no longer resided at the rehab at the time of the search.”
Court records show that Pendergraft pleaded guilty to manufacturing a controlled substance in 2010, a first-degree felony. At the time of her plea, she had already completed a substance abuse rehab program. So, rather than force her to serve her 15-year prison sentence, Circuit Judge Brian Howell granted Pendergraft five years of probation instead.
Sometime after that, records indicate, the woman began her work as the resident manager of Real Life Recovery, where she had a key to and control over a medicine cabinet that contained both prescribed and over-the-counter medicines.
“This fact was not obvious to the probation officer (overseeing Pendergraft) and would have been addressed given that Pendergraft’s underlying charge was drug-related,” the probation report stated.
Attempts by The Star over the past month to gather information about some of Calhoun County’s uncertified rehabs have been relatively unsuccessful. Tony Hamm, the director of Tri County Outreach in Oxford, declined to comment about any of the rehab’s treatment procedures, enrollment numbers or cost for care.
Attempts by phone to reach Kathy Evans, the owner of Tri County Outreach, were unsuccessful.
And multiple attempts over the past month to reach Danny Turner, the owner of Real Life Recovery, also were fruitless. People who answered the phone at the business on several different occasions said Turner didn’t want to comment. Calls made to every “Danny Turner” listed in the Calhoun County phone book went either unanswered or unreturned. When a reporter visited the facility in Oxford, at 1028 Hamric Drive W., the woman who answered the door turned the reporter away without comment. In addition, court documents listed the address and phone number for Real Life Recovery as the contact information for Pendergraft herself, who no longer works at the rehab.
The former director of Real Life Recovery faces a revocation of her probation as a result of her arrest. If Pendergraft is found guilty, she could spend the rest of her original 15-year sentence in prison.
Court records show Pendergraft’s case is still pending and that she hasn’t been charged with any other drug crimes in addition to the probation revocation on her original charges.
“In drug cases, they are processed, serve a little bit of time in prison and come back out,” Judge Jones said about these types of cases in general. “Those people are coming right back to the community with the same home, the same friends and the same mistakes that got them there in the first place.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.