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Hear the voices of families, victims at a town hall on Arizona’s sober living home scandal

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

“I want to thank everybody for being here. Our whole purpose for this town hall is basically we want accountability,” said Reva Stewart, founder of Stolen People, Stolen Benefits.

This grassroots watchdog group organized a town hall on the grounds of a former boarding school at the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center. Both rural and urban Natives traveled from near and far to Steele Indian School Park on Tuesday night.

They shared the deeply personal and devastating impacts after having been victimized by a sober living home scandal that gained widespread notoriety after the shutdown of more than 300 facilities last year.

Much like the legacy of boarding schools, traumas stemming from these sober living homes are still unresolved today for those families.

Stewart, a Navajo and Valley resident for more than three decades, invited representatives from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, Arizona Department of Health Services and Attorney General Kris Mayes.

“Unfortunately, they decided that they weren't going to be here this evening. We want them to hear our family stories. We want accountability,” added Stewart. “And we’re going to say that a lot — accountability — because we have so many people that are still missing to this day, and we want to know where they’re at.”

More than a dozen people spoke — each with a painful story to tell.

“This is one of the deepest, most gut-wrenching things that I've had to deal with,” said Jared Marquez of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, “because when I turned around and I realized that all my relatives, and all nations suffered the same problems, it hurts because we think we're alone.”

He’s also with Stolen People, Stolen Benefits and says his family was preyed upon with fatal consequences.

“I was born into a warrior society and everybody who inducted me in this, in my tribe, no longer walks this earth,” added Marquez, “and I carry the heart, love the passion to see us and want us to be better, think better, see better.”

Warren Weeks is Diné and Assiniboine Sioux, who watched as a witness standing next to an eagle staff dedicated to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples, or MMIP, posted in the corner. Those who offered remarks, like Marquez, would come came to him in prayer for blessings afterward as he fanned them with eagle feathers. 

Tears were wept. Grief and guilt kept growing.

Vanessa Tortice of the White Mountain Apache Tribe encouraged Jake, the father of her three children, to get sober.

“He wanted to beat his addiction,” said Tortice. “I’m the one who helped him get into one of these facilities, and it’s something I regret every day.”

She found out that he died last Fourth of July, under the supervision of that same facility. A struggling addict herself, Tortice shared that she also lost her 26-year-old sister and her dad to substance abuse.

“And I never thought he would die in the facility that was meant to help him. As an addict, it is hard because temptation is all around us,” said Tortice. “Drugs and alcohol were easier here to get than home. It's a hard battle. I'm still struggling to this day but I want to overcome it. I wish these facilities would help more.”

Sober living homes attracted Natives from far beyond Arizona, states like Montana, the Dakotas and even Alaska.

“It’s tough coming from South Dakota, and that’s a long ways away,” said James Bordeaux, a Rosebud Sioux. “Fly down here, right, jump into a treatment program, hoping for the best.”

He’s been in the Valley for more than a year now, and has been renting with roommates he initially met at a sober living home after leaving that facility behind.

“They’re in it for the money,” Bordeaux said. “We need to go after them for letting that happen to us, using us for money. We became dollar signs, basically.”

“I came here to change my life around. I went through treatment, I’ve been sober since July 25, 2022,” said Jeff Palmer of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico. “I’ve been trying, working hard. All my money goes into that rent.”

They stopped accepting insurance and forced him to pay rent, roughly $600 each month. With no family in the Valley and nowhere else to go, he’s been staying at a sober living home.

Otherwise, he’d be experiencing homelessness, like so many Indigenous peoples, in and around Phoenix, still struggling today.

“It seems like our money, they use it for their own benefit. I’ve been paying all this time, and I can’t get above this struggle,” said Palmer. “They have the power to kick us out on the streets, whenever we raise our voice or contend against them.”

Palmer loves Phoenix and wants to stay here in “this great city,” as he put it, but is pleading for help to successfully do so.

“You know, I’m sitting right there, just come to see me,” said Palmer, “because I don’t know who to go to. They don’t give me no resources. Once they kick us out, we're out on the streets, so I need help.”

And he wasn’t alone in asking for it.

“I’m just here to see if anyone has heard, I had a brother named Emerson,” said Rosa Nez. “We lost him two years ago. We didn’t know that he passed away.”

Rosa Nez and her son, Tyrell Jones, drove all afternoon from the northern Navajo community of Coalmine Canyon, east of Tuba City, an almost eight-hour round trip just to attend Tuesday night’s meeting. Her brother went to a sober living home near Apache Junction, but never returned.

“We’re still trying to figure out what had happened in a facility,” added Nez. “All we’ve got back was his clothes full of blood, bloodied clothes, not sure how that happened and to this day we haven’t gotten any answers.”

The Phoenix-based BrewerWood law firm filed two lawsuits in Maricopa County Superior Court less than a month ago. Both of them named AHCCCS, Arizona DHS, and the state of Arizona as defendants.

“This is gonna sound horrible, and I hate to say it, but if this happened in a different area code, this never would have happened,” said John Brewer, a managing partner at BrewerWood. “This would have been stopped years and years and years ago.”

“What I’m holding right here are two documents. They’re each about 30, some pages, these are lawsuits. We’re the only firm in the country that is spoken out on this,” added BrewerWood managing partner Dane Wood, “and as we peel back the onion, and learned about all this, it gets worse and worse and worse.”

Wood pointed out that the state has portrayed itself as a victim of widespread fraud that the Attorney General’s Office estimates has cost Arizona more than $2.8 billion.

“Well, the disconnect is what about the actual victims that have died, beaten,” said Wood. “Those victims had no voice, many of them are dead.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.