When felon Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman crossed the border from Mexico in November, he told U.S. Customs agents he was the owner and operator of Reflections Treatment Center and that his wife, Laura, was a “stay-at-home mom,” according to court documents.
This would be news to the state’s Department of Children and Families, which issued a license to Laura Chatman to operate Reflections in Margate, as well as a provisional license for Journey to Recovery in Lake Worth.
Chatman now stands charged in a federal fraud complaint that includes shocking details, such as how he kept female addicts prisoner and prostituted some of them out. It is just the latest revelation of abuse in the county’s substance abuse industry.
This arrest appears to have gotten the attention of the agency in Tallahassee charged with licensing treatment centers, the lone regulatory hurdle facing the county’s $1 billion recovery industry.
The agency plans to beef up licensing standards “to prevent unscrupulous individuals from taking advantage of vulnerable individuals in the recovery process,” DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims told The Palm Beach Post.
“DCF has zero tolerance for anyone being taken advantage of and this work will help ensure a more comprehensive review of potential treatment providers,” she said.
The agency said it also will lobby for more authority to begin monitoring sober homes, which currently have no licensing requirements.
Palm Beach County Chief Assistant State Attorney Alan Johnson, head of the county’s Sober Homes Task Force, said he is thrilled DCF is ready to take on more responsibility but “the Legislature still needs to give them the ability to carry out their responsibility.”
“They don’t have the legal staff, they don’t have the investigative staff. It’s not their fault,” he said. “You can’t bleed a rock.”
Demand for regulation
In a recent Palm Beach County grand jury report on the sober home issue — as well as recommendations to the Legislature coming from the Palm Beach County task force — the alarm has been sounded that DCF cannot adequately license and monitor a recovery industry that is springing treatment facilities like roadside palm trees.
Recommendations include providing DCF the same kind of resources available to the state Health Department so it can do more than just license drug treatment centers.
State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who organized the task force and called for the grand jury report, and supporters in the recovery industry plan to lobby the Legislature as well to expand DCF’s scope.
DCF also needs to increase the fee it charges to license a recovery facility, which currently sits at a paltry $300, members of the task force say.
But when it comes to running after operators like Chatman, DCF right now can barely walk because of staffing and budget issues, those in the recovery community say. And DCF’s task is enormous.
For the southeast region, which includes Palm Beach, Broward and the Treasure Coast counties, the agency received requests for 241 application packets for licensure from April through July.
More than 60 were from new providers trying to join an industry buoyed by a nationwide heroin epidemic and centered around the more than 900 substance abuse treatment providers licensed in Florida. The agency has 25 staffers dedicated to licensing and inspecting drug abuse treatment facilities — nine for the southeast region.
In response to the industry’s growth, DCF added two full-time positions this year to the southeast region and supplemented those positions with additional hourly staff.
The agency also hopes to get more efficient.
“The department is in the process of developing an electronic licensing system that will greatly increase efficiency in the licensure process and reduce administrative workload,” Sims said.
A Christmas gift
Chatman had been linked in police reports to prostitution and running flop houses where drug abusers were allowed to continue to use drugs.
Chatman’s employees provided clean urine as he soaked his clients’ insurance policies for treatment that was never delivered, the FBI’s criminal complaint released at the time of his arrest Wednesday said.
The arrest comes a year after The Palm Beach Post reported that Chatman had been linked in police reports to prostituting female addicts but no criminal action had been taken. In October, the newspaper reported on two addicts who overdosed in a sober home linked to Chatman. A 24-year-old woman died.
John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, was one of the first sound the alarm about Chatman. “Bringing down Chatman now, they gave me personally a tremendous Christmas gift because I have been screaming about this guy since 2013,” Lehman said.
So how did Chatman operate with such apparent impunity?
Chatman was emboldened, sources told The Post, because federal raids in 2014 on two competing recovery businesses resulted in no arrests and no indictments.
Chatman, as a felon, could not own a treatment facility because he could not pass a Level 2 criminal background check.
DCF approved the license for Reflections under his wife’s name, despite the fact that her name did not appear on the facility’s website, but his did, with Chatman prominently calling himself the “founder” of the treatment center.
Despite the publicity surrounding Chatman, his October license application for Journey to Recovery under his wife’s name did not raise any red flags.
The agency said Wednesday in response to questions from The Post that it would suspend a probationary license for Journey to Recovery granted in November and review the allegations to determine if a permanent revocation is warranted.
Lehman said it is reasonable that taxpayers would think the agency issuing the license “would prevent a Ken Chatman from pulling off what he has done for the last five years.” The reality is, though, that there isn’t enough staff at DCF to execute oversight of the recovery facilities, he said.
Justin Kunzelman, who co-founded Rebel Recovery, a nonprofit that reaches out to struggling addicts, said DCF was too underfunded and understaffed when Chatman entered the recovery industry. “There was no way they could check any of the stuff that was happening,” he said.
The arrest of Chatman came just a month after The Post’s series, Heroin: Killer of A Generation, about the human wreckage caused by the heroin-related overdoses in 2015.
Many of the allegations in the criminal complaint match those described in a series of Post stories dating to August 2015.
The result is that good treatment facilities are collateral damage, suffering as insurance companies deny coverage and families stop sending loved ones to Florida because of the negative publicity.
Lake Worth City Commissioner Andy Amoroso put it this way:
“At the end of the day, many people don’t want to send their children and loved ones to South Florida because the sober home business plan doesn’t work because we are sending their kids back in body bags.”
Federal prosecutors said in court that they plan to tie Chatman to overdose deaths, placing him in a heroin scourge that has seen more than 400 opioid-related fatal overdoses so far this year.
As for Chatman, a federal magistrate refused to grant him bail Thursday. His attorney, Saam Zangeneh, tried to cast doubt on the accusations, whether they be addicts or even Chatman’s former employees. “A lot of people who work in recovery are also recovering addicts,” he said. “They may be fighting demons themselves.”
Kunzelman, a recovering addict serving on the sober homes task force, said the importance of federal officials charging Chatman for submitting a license application in his wife’s name cannot be underestimated because the practice is so pervasive.
It gives law enforcement another avenue that is less time-consuming than investigating patient-brokering, which involves interviewing numerous witnesses, maybe even using wiretaps, he said.
“That sets a federal legal precedent,” he said. “If I’m a felon and I can’t get a Level 2 background check — which is one of the few things owners do have to with DCF — then I just put it in my mom’s name or my wife’s name. But I’m there every day reaping the financial benefits.”
Staff writer Jane Musgrave contributed to this story.
What The Post reported
Citing police reports, The Post exposed Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman as a sober home owner who kept women “in a state of impairment in order to ‘pimp’ them out.” The December 2015 story also detailed the drug overdose death of a 27-year-old man in a Chatman sober home. Evidence in the story contradicted Chatman’s claim that he did not own or operate sober homes. Read the stories at MyPalmBeachPost.com