Service Dog Scam
September 14, 2020
Multiple families fear a Virginia-based nonprofit organization called Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers cheated them out of thousands of fundraising dollars.
These are families raising children, or individuals who have, severe autism, diabetes, seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder, who sought out SDWR for trained service dogs to help themselves or their children cope. To qualify for a dog, SDWR requires a family to fundraise $25,000 for the organization. There is no fundraising deadline, but most families meet the goal within six months to a year, according to the SDWR website.
Nine parents, as well as one individual suffering from PTSD, who contacted Fox News raised thousands or met the full $25,000 goal, in most cases, within about a year. Then they got notice that the organization filed for bankruptcy in May.
Seven never got a dog nor any kind of refund, and three got untrained dogs.
The phone number and email address listed on SDWR’s website, as well as a phone number listed under the founder’s name, have been disconnected.
“I am sickened by the fact that this man and his company took advantage of families in need,” Kristy Church, the mother of an 8-year-old boy with autism who never received her dog or any kind of refund, said of SDWR President Charles D. Warren, Jr. “We trusted him to uphold his end of the agreement and he violated that trust.” Erin Gray, who worked as a trainer for SDWR for seven years before being terminated without notice in January, said Warren — whom she said went by Dan Warren — “is in no way a dog trainer and has no dog training skills, let alone dog behavior knowledge or evaluation skills.” She added that Warren “refused” to talk with families who expressed concerns with SDWR, which was founded in 2010.
Stephanie Magner-Tripp, who has an (almost) 8-year-old, nonverbal son with autism, got a 2-year-old dog through SDWR after raising $25,000, but it was untrained and nothing remotely close to the service dog she expected.
“When I found out some people didn’t get a dog, I thought, ‘There is a special place in hell for people like this who take advantage of people who are already in stressful situations…with their mental state hanging on by a thread,'” she said.
SDWR doesn’t look like a scam. Its website is detailed, and it used to offer links to social media pages that no longer exist, but the organization’s YouTube Page is still up and features a number of positive testimonials from customers.
The last testimonial video was uploaded in 2017 and features an Army veteran and police officer with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury who sought SDWR for a service dog to help him cope.
It also features a number of videos of a trainer teaching service dogs how to learn various tricks. Some families mentioned that they were referred to SDWR by people who had positive experiences with the organization through social media. A search for the hashtag #ServiceDogsByWarrenRetrivers on Instagram shows a number of photos featuring service dogs with positive captions that date back to 2013.
Gray, who has her own SDWR dog to help with her PTSD, said “many families did have positive experiences,” but the organization’s success “went in waves.” She started working at SDWR when it was successful, but its success in placing families with trained service dogs fluctuated throughout the years, she said.
“There were times when the organization was fully staffed that things were good and dogs were getting the training, socialization and public exposure,” she said. “There were also times dogs were getting no training, not even basic obedience. Families were set up for failure and told lies. Other families got exactly what they were promised.”
She added that Warren had “favorites” who got “amazing” dogs, while “at least half” of the organization’s dogs went to families completely untrained. Some families returned their dogs, which were then redistributed to other families.
“These dogs sat in kennels all day and were with an actual trainer for less than eight hours…in their life, and some went out to families at two years of age,” Gray said. “In the last year, Mr. Warren ended his long term working relationship with Blue Ridge Animal Hospital, and the dogs were not vaccinated or spayed/neutered prior to delivery to families. Dogs had dental issues due to plaque overgrowth. Dogs had behavioral issues.”
Magner-Tripp said she first found SDWR through a Facebook ad in April of 2019 and was very excited at the prospect of finding what seemed like the perfect organization to find a service dog to help her son and family. A number of parents said SDWR was the only service dog organization that would train the dogs themselves, tailor dogs to specific needs, did not require families to travel anywhere and helped customers fundraise.
“It was very exciting,” she said. “…We were convinced it would be a big turnaround and give us better quality of life.”
Magner-Tripp scoured the website, watched videos SDWR published, read reviews and said nothing raised a red flag.
“I had to stop beating myself up and saying, ‘Oh, so stupid! How could I have given this much money up front?’ It’s a lot of me just feeling stupid and naive when I typically like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person,” she said, adding that the Facebook support page has made her feel less alone.
Vanessa Valdez Avila, the mother of a 7-year-old son with severe autism, said she also came across one such video on Facebook in 2019. It displayed a service dog blocking a child from eloping, or running away from a caregiver. Avila was immediately interested and researched a number of service dog organizations but thought SDWR seemed the most feasible for her family.
Once SDWR pairs a family and a dog, the group promises to send training staff to families’ homes for three to four days for eight-hour sessions, according to the website. The trainers were supposed to return several times over the course of the first year of training.
“Nothing really rose eyebrows,” Avila said. “Nothing seemed out of the ordinary or red-flag raising. They were prompt about calling back and checking in during fundraising lulls.”
Avila, Church, Magner-Tripp and at least seven others raised thousands of dollars through SDWR on the fundraising platform Donor Drive.
“In total, we had raised about $8,000 before we had to pivot to handle the cancer battle,” Church said, referencing her husband’s cancer treatment. “We had already lost our last home fighting his first cancer battle just trying to keep bills paid and affording the expense that came with it.”
She added that her family was forced to stop fundraising because her husband had to retire due to his illness, and their family was “without an income for a number of months.” As for the $8,000 Church raised through SDWR, she still has no idea where it went, and she never got a dog.
Tracy Brown, mother to a 23-year-old son with Down syndrome and Type 1 diabetes, had similarly been trying to raise money since 2015 until her husband was diagnosed with cancer in May of 2017 and the process slowed.
All families said the application process was lengthy and involved a number of different and very detailed forms. Avila said she signed a contract with SDWR saying she wasn’t allowed to disparage the organization as part of the agreement. Once families were approved to get a dog, the organization set up a fundraising page for each customer.
“We set up a [fundraising] page with them through Donor Drive,” Avila said. “All of the fundraising information had to go through them. They would create literature and graphics for us to use.”
Once she and others met their fundraising goals through SDWR, they received a confirmation email saying they had met the fundraising requirement and would soon be matched with a service dog. Several families who raised the complete $25,000, however, said that once they met that goal, it would take months to hear back from SDWR about next steps. A legal disclaimer in the congratulatory email from SDWR states the following: “SDWR makes every attempt to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the dates for delivery of your service dog. However, the dates are provided ‘tentative’ without guarantee of any kind.” The disclaimer adds that the “purchaser waives any claim against SDWR for any responsibility or liability for a change or delay in date of delivery” due to reasons ranging from “extreme weather” to “scheduling conflicts.”
When Avila finally did get a response, it was to inform her that SDWR had suspended training due to the coronavirus pandemic. Avila understood and continued waiting until she received another email informing her that SDWR was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in June. A U.S. bankruptcy court filing shows that Warren filed for bankruptcy on May 29, 2020.
The nonprofit informed Avila that she could drive to Virginia to pick up her dog, but it would not be trained. Avila said she and her husband could not miss work to pick up the dog and informed SDWR of their circumstances, but they did not hear back and they do not know where her fundraising money went.
Christie Carpenter, the mother of an 11-year-old son with autism who experienced abuse for years, said SDWR awarded her a $7,500 grant after she won an essay contest and was told she had to raise the additional $17,500 to get a service dog.
“Through the help of my employers and my gym, we were able to raise these funds by the end of May 2019,” she said. “We were told once the amount was met, there would be a ‘silent’ period of four to six months. That was over a year ago.”
Carpenter said she emailed the organization numerous times before she heard back again around late April when it said she could pick up her dog in New Jersey. Carpenter delayed her response because she was unsure what conditions in New Jersey would be like during the pandemic but replied a week later saying she was willing to pick up the dog.
“I got no response,” she said. “I emailed them again questioning them as to why we were never contacted, as it stated in their paperwork, when the dog was selected and if they could please give me specifics on our dog. I got no response.”
The same was the case for at least five other families who spoke to Fox News; none of them know where their fundraising money went or if they will ever get it back.
Magner-Tripp, Erin Leary and Kay Gruszka had slightly different experiences after raising the complete $25,000.
Leary — who suffers from PTSD, anxiety and depression — said she received an untrained dog “at the beginning of COVID-19” after raising $25,000 over the course of seven months and was told training would take place after “bonding time.”
When she saw her dog, Elsa, for the first time, Leary said she was “skinny” and “stunk so bad,” adding that she looked like “she hadn’t been groomed in years.”
“Shortly after I got the dog, [SDWR] filed for bankruptcy,” Leary said. “My dog never got trained, and we never got compensated.”
Gruszka, mother to two young boys with autism and ADHD who put about $8,000 of her own money toward her fundraising efforts that took nearly two years to complete, said she got a dog after waiting “almost a full year” after meeting her fundraising goal.
She added that her dog, Heddy, “lived on the company’s farm in a kennel” and had no evident exposure to people or children with special needs.
Magner-Tripp said she finally got a dog after waiting about nine months after she raised the complete $25,000 in the summer of 2019 and with barely notice at all, despite the fact that she sent regular emails asking when she would receive her dog and how.
When a trainer finally showed up to her door with a dog, Magner-Tripp said she immediately noticed it was not trained — never mind trained to be a service dog tailored to her son’s specific needs, as the company promised.
“The only thing she was really trained for was house training,” she said, laughing. “She would drag you around when you walked her. We had to work with her on ‘sit.’ … Thinking on the plus side, which is all we can do, we lucked out in that she is a beautiful, highly affectionate, sweet, sweet animal.”
The SDWR trainer who delivered the 2-year-old dog accompanied Magner-Tripp’s family to the local fire department to help register the dog as a service dog and then to the vet, where Magner-Tripp learned that her new dog had an ear infection. She said the trainer seemed aware that the dog was not trained to be an autism service dog but seemed conflicted as an employee for the company and kept saying things along the lines of, “This will be a quick fix,” when the dog displayed unruly behavior.
A 990 tax filing shows SDWR garnered $876,423 from contributions in 2017 but spent $1.6 million. The form also says SDWR had 24 employees at the time. Two 990 forms from 2015 and 2016 show similar losses.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a lawsuit against SDWR in 2018 saying the nonprofit violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act (VCPA) and Solicitation of Contributions Law (VSOC) by misleading “hopeful and vulnerable consumers” who received untrained dogs “not equipped to help them manage a life-threatening disability.”
Herring’s office did not respond to inquiries from Fox News. Warren’s bankruptcy attorney, Stephen Dunn, also did not respond to a request for comment from Fox News.
SDWR’s bankruptcy filing shows that the nonprofit went by a different name — “Guardian Angel Service Dogs” — sometime before it became SDWR.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” John Morgan, attorney and founder of Virginia bankruptcy law firm New Day Legal, said. Morgan offered insight into various legal documents related to SDWR’s bankruptcy case.
One such document is a notice of bankruptcy filing that was issued to more than 200 individuals, including several of those who spoke with Fox News.
Herring filed a motion for relief in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia on June 5 from SDWR’s automatic stay. A stay prevents creditors from contacting or collecting debt from the debtor (SDWR), Morgan explained. A motion for relief allows creditors to resume legal action and collect debt.
“The Commonwealth requested the Circuit Court of Madison County to enjoin the Debtor from violating the VCPA and the VSOC law; to order the Debtor to pay to consumers all sums necessary to restore any money or property acquired from them by the Debtor in connection with violations of the VCPA,” the motion for relief states.
The June 5 document adds that SDWR owes the Commonwealth civil penalties of $2,500 “for each willful violation by the Debtor of the VCPA”; $5,000 for each violation of VSOC; as well as fines of $1,000 for each violation of VCPA; $250 for each violation of VSOC; case investigation costs and attorney’s fees.
An Aug. 8 notice states that the court discovered that SDWR’s “assets may be recovered by the trustee” and individuals must fill out and submit a Proof of Claim from the Clerk of the Court by Nov. 11, as Morgan explained. He added, however, that it is a “strong possibility” all recovered assets go to the Internal Revenue Service rather than individuals.
Melina Colon and Jovana Flores, who appeared on “Dr. Phil” in 2016, shared similar SDWR scam stories on national TV, saying they reached out to the organization when it went by the name “Guardian Angel Service Dogs.” SDWR’s website acknowledges the “Dr. Phil” episode, saying the organization has previously “sued these individuals.”
“SDWR believes that the Dr. Phil episode was not only a biased ambush but undue coverage of these individuals who carry their own criminal records. The show features mothers who have been charged previously with child endangerment and arson along with numerous other charges…” the site states.
The statement adds that Colon and Flores have “frequently attempted to gain notoriety through their conflicts and explosive natures. SDWR has previously sued these individuals and a non-disparagement and non-disclosure order was put in place after a resolution was met. But they continue.”
John Breyault, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League, a consumer advocacy nonprofit, suggested that people who are looking to buy service dogs for various physical or mental health reasons should aim to get recommendations through organizations that specialize in those physical or mental health needs, such as autism, diabetes or PTSD awareness or advocacy groups.
He also suggested people look locally.
“If I’m going to pay $25,000 for anything, I’m going to went to see it in person,” he said, adding that people looking to buy service dogs should compare and contrast prices from different organizations to get a feel for what service dogs trained to help those with specific needs might cost.
Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy group in the U.S., lists a number of service dog organizations on their website, including the Ohio-based 4 Paws for Ability. 4 Paws conducted a study in 2017 that found families pay “between $40,000-60,000” for an autism service dog.
The families who spoke to Fox News said that at this point they are just looking for some concrete answers about what happened to their fundraising money. “I can only hope that by sharing our story and others sharing theirs, no one has to endure what we are going through,” said Kristin Summers, mother of a 15-year-old son who has frontal lobe deficits who raised nearly half of the $25,000 before she learned of their bankruptcy filing. “Our children depend on these working dogs to have a better life.”