Over the past two years, the nonprofit organization HOPE for New Hampshire Recovery has expanded from a single modest space in Manchester to seven drug recovery centers statewide – making it the largest such organization in New Hampshire.
Hope for New Hampshire’s growth hasn’t gone smoothly. Several employees quit claiming they were mistreated. There are allegations that staffers used and at times sold drugs at work. One center has closed. Former employees spoke with NHPR about serious problems plaguing a key player in the state’s fight against opioid addiction.
When Hope for New Hampshire Recovery moved into its new flagship space in Manchester this past December, top names in local and state politics attended the ribbon cutting, including newly-elected Governor Chris Sununu.
"I do want to take this moment and also recognize some of the other folks," Sununu said as he began to list some of the people in the crowd. "Mayor Gatsas, Chief Willard, Governor Hassan of course, Senator D’Allesandro, Senator Soucy..."
Also attending was top backer Andy Crews. He’s the president and CEO of AutoFair Automotive Group and also the husband of HOPE board member and former chair Melissa Crews.
Over the years, the pair has given tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to state political candidates.
HOPE’s growth has been fueled by both private and public money, including nearly half a million dollars in state contracts last year.
But many who have worked with HOPE say the organization has struggled to deliver what it promised. I talked with more than half a dozen former HOPE employees. They gave similar accounts of an organization where staff oversight was minimal, employees were encouraged to fudge numbers and bullying was a common leadership style.
Michelle Parenteau is one of those former employees.
“I could not continue to work with a company that was unethical – that literally did not care about its employees and really did not care about the members that were coming in,” Parenteau said.
Parenteau resigned from HOPE in February after working as a recovery coach for eight months at the Claremont center. Since then, she’s filed official complaints with state and county regulators.
In them, she describes being verbally abused and bullied by HOPE’s leadership. She claims management failed to assist her in dealing with drug use at the center and incidents of sexual harassment.
Parenteau, who’s been in recovery for six years, says some of her fellow coaches were hired with as little as 30 days of sobriety. This, she said, led to high staff turnover and dysfunction at some of HOPE’s centers.
“The centers are never consistent. It’s always changing – meetings are always changing – some days it was closed – some days it was open and they’re just hiring anyone,” Parenteau described.
She and others I spoke with tied a lot of problems to former-Executive Director Holly Cekala.
Parenteau says Cekala pushed employees to become certified recovery support workers - something required in order to allow HOPE to bill insurance companies.
But Parenteau says Cekala signed off on that certification for her and others without actually doing the necessary supervision.
“I needed 500 hours supervised in order to get that and within two weeks they gave me my 500 hours," she said.
500 hours takes much longer than that.
"A few months – at least. I mean 40 hours a week," Michelle said with a chuckle.
Cekala would not comment for this story. She was removed last month from the top job at HOPE but she still works for the organization - managing its hospital and insurance contracts.
Kim Shepard says she had similar experiences as a manager at the Concord and Franklin Centers.
She and others I talked to say they were told to inflate the number of people being helped at each center. Under its state contract, HOPE was required to provide these head counts.
“They were having staff people sign in, recovery coaches in training, the postal person, they were counting all the groups that were conducted by AA or HA, which had nothing to do, they were using the space,” Shepard said.
The organization was also awarded $25,000 from Sullivan County to run two centers in Newport and Claremont. But last month when HOPE sought more money – the county said "no"citing what it called HOPE’s “unclear financials.”
I reached out to HOPE’s Board Chair Scott Bickford by email to talk about these complaints and other issues. He said he couldn’t talk because the complaints are confidential, but he said the Board is “treating these matters with the seriousness that they deserve.”
Former employee Dana Lemire says the problems at HOPE for New Hampshire have been building for a long time.
Lemire now runs a recovery house in Manchester. He says when he began working at HOPE in November of 2015, he wondered how all these new centers would stay afloat.
“Way, way over their heads – no business plan, no strategic plan, no forward thinking capitalization plan – how are we going to do this," Lemire said. "To launch something and then try to figure out how you are going to fund it is usually in the business world a formula for failure.”
Lemire says the organization meant well but just couldn’t deliver.
Former employees told me that some people in recovery have even stopped going to the centers because they feel unsafe.
So far the state has received at least four complaints from former HOPE employees. Officials at DHHS declined to speak on tape about the organization. But a spokesman told me that the department “takes its oversight responsibilities very seriously and is responding accordingly.”