Saturday, July 22, 2017

Commitment paperwork at center of Cosmo DiNardo's dismissed gun charge in Bensalem

Posted: July 19, 2017


Cosmo DiNardo led into Bucks County prison
The circumstances surrounding the dismissal of a felony gun charge against Cosmo DiNardo earlier this year remain unclear and have authorities pointing fingers following his arrest last week as a quadruple murder suspect at the end of one of the largest police investigations in recent county memory.
Bucks County Court Administrator Stephen Heckman, who oversees county district courts, said the charge was dismissed because paperwork submitted in the case lacked a necessary doctor’s signature confirming DiNardo was involuntarily committed under section 302 of the state's Mental Health Procedures Act. A psychiatric emergency is one of the few health problems that can result in someone being held against his or her will.
Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub insisted this week that the paperwork for the 302 commitment was properly prepared and signed, but he declined to release a copy of the paperwork prosecutors presented at DiNardo's preliminary hearing.
According to an affidavit of probable cause, DiNardo told Bensalem police about a past "involuntary commitment to a mental institution" when they found him in possession of a 20-gauge shotgun and ammunition in February.
Bensalem police, though, requested the 302 commitment records from the wrong places, not the county's mental and behavioral health agency, which maintains the completed and sealed documents, according to Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, who investigated the matter. 
In an email to this news organization, Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran said his department doesn't often request mental health commitment records as part of a criminal case.
The probable cause affidavit provides no other details about the arrest of DiNardo, the 20-year-old son of two local business owners, including where it occurred in the township or how the officer found the Bensalem resident in possession of the weapon. He was arraigned before District Judge Maggie Snow, who released him on $25,000 unsecured bail with conditions that included he wasn't to possess firearms.
The affidavit described DiNardo as a “subject known to be suffering from mental illness" and having been involuntarily committed, which would make it illegal for him to own or use a firearm. 
The preliminary hearing on the gun possession charge was continued three times before it was held on May 30, and the charge was dismissed for reasons that are not entirely clear, according to a review of documents in the case filed in District Judge Michael Gallagher’s court in Bensalem. Gallagher declined comment and referred questions to Heckman. Available public records do not identify the county prosecutor who appeared at the February preliminary hearing, but that is not unusual.
No transcript of the proceedings was in DiNardo’s court file, and it’s unknown if a record of the proceeding exists. Defense attorneys typically have a stenographer make a record of preliminary hearing proceedings.
Sources with knowledge of the preliminary hearing said that DiNardo's attorney, Michael Parlow, raised objections about the "missing doctor's signature" on the involuntary commitment paperwork.
A little more than five weeks after the May 30 dismissal, authorities said, DiNardo shot and killed Jimi Taro Patrick, 19, of Newtown Township. Two days later, DiNardo and his cousin, Sean Kratz, 20, of Philadelphia, allegedly murdered Dean Finocchiaro, 19, of Middletown; Tom Meo, 21, of Plumstead; and Mark Sturgis, 22, of Pennsburg, Montgomery County. The men were lured to a Solebury farm owned by the DiNardo family over several days earlier this month, where they were killed and buried, authorities say.
Authorities allege a .357 Magnum handgun that belonged to DiNardo’s mother, Sandra DiNardo, and a .22 caliber rifle were used in the murders. Harran declined to comment on how many guns the Bensalem family owns.  
A Pennsylvania State Police spokesman said a past involuntary commitment doesn't prohibit someone from living in a household where firearms owned by someone else are present.
Records in the case file for the gun possession charge show that, in a March 24 email, Bensalem Detective John Monaghan requested Gallagher authorize a subpoena for “any and all” records pertaining to the involuntary mental health commitment of DiNardo. The request, however, didn't include the correct agency, Ellis-Marseglia said.
Instead of requesting the records related to DiNardo's July 12, 2016, involuntary commitment from the Bucks County Mental Health/Developmental Programs, the police in an email asked the district judge to subpoena Lenape Valley Crisis Services and Doylestown Hospital for the records "showing the 302 was upheld after initial evaluation." Lenape Valley, Bucks County’s emergency mental health service provider, has a unit at Doylestown Hospital.
The same day that Monaghan made the request, Gallagher issued subpoenas for someone from Lenape Valley Mental Health Crisis Services to appear at a March 29 preliminary hearing and produce any records pertaining to DiNardo’s 302 commitment. Gallagher also issued a subpoena for Doylestown Hospital to appear at the same hearing and bring “any and all records” related to DiNardo.
But those agencies wouldn't have had the completed 302 paperwork on file because it was filed with the county mental health agency, which can release them only with authorization from Pennsylvania State Police, according to agency administrator Donna Duffy-Bell. 
Once state police authorize the county to release the records, they are forwarded, Duffy-Bell said.
She also said her agency receives “very minimal” requests — fewer than five a year — for 302 records from police. She added that her staff has in the past reviewed the proper process for requesting 302 commitment records in its crisis intervention training sessions with law enforcement. 
The Bucks County District Attorney's Office authorized Bensalem police to refile the original firearms possession charge against DiNardo June 21, according to court documents. Harran said the refiling was delayed because the arresting officer — who is the one who has to re-file the charge — was on vacation, then assigned to overnight patrol when she returned. The gun possession charge was refiled July 10, after authorities began searching the DiNardo family's Solebury farm as part of the investigation into the missing men who were later found murdered. 
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@calkins.com; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia

How 302 commitment works with gun possession

  • If a 302 involuntary mental health commitment is upheld by the evaluating physician, it provides for up to 120 hours of treatment. Upon the upholding of the 302 by the evaluating physician, the county mental health office submits to the State Police and county sheriff's office written notification per the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act.
  • If the 302 is not upheld by the physician, no notification is sent to the State police or Sheriff’s office. It is as if the 302 did not exist.
  • If the 302 is approved/upheld by the physician and the person stabilizes within 120 hours or the person converts to a voluntary admission, then a 303 hearing does not have to be held. The person still cannot possess guns, however, because the 302 was upheld.
  • If the 302 is approved/upheld by the physician and, at a later date (even years into the future), the person wants to file for an expungement of the original 302, he/she can do that through the Court of Common Pleas. If the Court finds for the individual, his/her name will be removed from the data bases at the Sheriff's office, State Police, and the Department of Mental Health. The person then could possess firearms.
  • If a person who has been the subject of an approved/upheld 302 attempts to purchase a firearm by misrepresenting that he/she has a 302 history on a gun purchase application, local authorities can choose to press charges. In such cases, the process that is to be followed is that the local authority needs to make a request for records to my Department through the State police. Sealed records documenting the executed 302 are provided once the request is received from the State police. These charges are usually heard at the Magisterial District Justice level
Source: Bucks County Mental Health/Behavioral Health Department

Appeals court upholds contempt charge, jail sentence against Claire Risoldi

Posted July 18, 2017

A Pennsylvania appeals court has upheld a contempt judgment against a politically connected Bucks County woman for violating a court order barring her from contacting prosecution witnesses in a $20 million fraud case in which she is a defendant.

Attorney Jack McMahon, who is representing Claire Risoldi, 70, of Buckingham, vowed on Tuesday to appeal the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but didn't provide additional comment on the appeals court decision.


Claire Risoldi
In a nine-page decision issued Monday, the three state judges found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in finding Risoldi was in “indirect criminal contempt of court.”
Last month marked one year since Chester County Senior Judge Thomas Gavin found Risoldi in contempt of court for using the subpoena process to skirt his no-contact order with witnesses in the fraud case and ordered her to serve 30 days in jail.
“The record indicates Judge Gavin’s order was definite, clear and specific and left no doubt or uncertainty in the mind of either Risoldi or her counsel,” the appeals court wrote. The appeals court order also noted that Risoldi was in the courtroom when the Feb. 8, 2016, order was issued and McMahon indicated that he understood what it meant.
Claire Risoldi, her daughter, Carla Risoldi, 50, of Solebury, son Carl A. Risoldi, 46, and his wife, Sheila Risoldi, 45, both of Buckingham, are accused of fraud and related offenses in connection with alleged false insurance claims filed following an October 2013 fire at the family estate, Clairemont, in Buckingham, according to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. Through their respective attorneys, the family members consistently have denied any wrongdoing in the state’s fraud case.
Gavin is overseeing the Risoldi fraud case and related matters after all Bucks County judges recused themselves in 2015, when the criminal charges were filed against the family, which has close ties with the county’s Republican Party. No trial date has been scheduled in the Risoldi cases as other outstanding related appeals await Superior Court decisions.
Claire Risoldi, who will be tried separately from her other family members, also faces charges of insurance fraud dating back as far as 1984, as well as charges of witness intimidation. In April 2016, state prosecutors learned that Claire Risoldi had subpoenas served on witnesses in the 2013 fraud case, prompting them to file the contempt of court motion, as well as witness intimidation charges.
The appellate judges disagreed with the argument McMahon raised that Risoldi did not violate the order because she never had any contact with witnesses. The appeal order also noted that Risoldi didn’t contest that she personally participated in preparing and serving the subpoenas.
“Despite the lower court’s directive Risoldi, personally and without the assistance of attorney McMahon, proceeded to have a series of subpoenas served,” the order stated. Among the recipients of the subpoena were Buckingham Police Department, Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and the Buckingham Fire Marshal’s office.
McMahon has 30 days to file a petition for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear the case; if that appeal is filed, Risoldi will remain free without bail while the high court decides if it will hear the case.

Sober living and recovery homes move closer to new, voluntary regulations

Posted June 22, 2017



Jessica Blackburn (C) and Tom Blackburn (R)
The Pennsylvania Senate has passed its bill that would create voluntary regulations for transitional homes for recovering substance users, weeks after the House adopted another version of the legislation.
Provisions in Senate Bill 446, which received unanimous approval Wednesday and now moves to the House Human Services Committee, are similar to those in House Bill 119.
Both bills would give the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) the responsibility for certifying so-called recovery and sober living houses (or homes). The agency is currently responsible for licensing and oversight of drug and alcohol treatment programs, centers and halfway houses.
Recovery houses would not be forced to obtain state certification under either bill, but state-licensed drug treatment programs would be allowed to refer clients only to certified homes. Another built-in incentive is access to state and federal funding for services, which would be available only to certified homes. 
Both bills would ban recovery home owners, operators and employees from requiring residents to sign over public assistance benefits.
The Senate bill would create a new Drug and Alcohol Recovery House Fund where money collected from certification fees and fines would be deposited and used for law enforcement.
The key difference between the bills is the House bill spells out in greater detail the regulations that homes would be expected to follow, while the Senate bill gives DDAP more freedom to write the standards, said Mike Rader, chief of staff for Sen. Tom McGarrigle, the Delaware County Republican who sponsored the bill.
“It recognized the department of drug and alcohol are the experts and they can go through the regulatory exercise for the right and wrong ways to regulate recovery houses,” Rader said.
The Senate bill does provide some guidance for the DDAP, noting that its regulations should include policies and procedures for disclosure of house rules and lease agreements upon admission, require that residents participate in treatment, self-help or other recovery supports, establish appropriate use and security of medications, property maintenance and abstinence from alcohol and illicit substances in the homes.
State Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, of Bristol Township, on Thursday said she believes the House’s version of the bill is stronger than the Senate bill because it spells out the regulations DDAP should include, which are based on the state recovery house task force’s recommendations. Davis has introduced two House bills to create voluntary recovery house regulations, but neither has come up for a floor vote.
Davis is also concerned that giving the DDAP the responsibility to draft the regulations could take more time, unless the agency uses the task force regulations as its guidance. There is also the looming potential of consolidation of the DDAP and the state’s health, human services and aging departments, a move that Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed, which Davis worries could stall efforts to enact certification standards.
“My concern is it will take forever,” Davis said. “There is really no time to waste.”
Pennsylvania has no regulations for recovery and sober living houses, a fast-growing and lucrative segment of the housing industry. The homes are supposed to provide a structured drug-free environment and support for recovering substance abusers as they rebuild their lives and maintain sobriety after treatment or prison stays. Residents are protected from discrimination under federal housing and disability laws, which makes imposing mandatory regulations difficult, state and local officials have said.
But the lack of regulation and oversight has made it difficult for those recovering from addiction, their families and local officials to learn much about recovery houses, including where they're located, who runs them and if they provide the sober and safe environment that those who treat substance abusers say is critical to lasting sobriety.
At least 122 confirmed recovery houses were operating in Bucks County last year, according to an analysis by this news organization. More than three-quarters of them were in Bristol Township, where they have faced intense public scrutiny from residents who complained some homes are neighborhood nuisances.
Last month, Bucks County detectives charged a 25-year-old man with selling drugs in a Middletown recovery house where he was placed after he was released from Bucks County prison. The charges came after two other house residents survived overdoses of heroin mixed with fentanyl and other residents claimed they bought drugs from the man.
Buckingham resident Jessica Schieber Blackburn's 29-year-old daughter Victoria Exner died in November 2015 of a cocaine overdose in a Bristol Township recovery home owned and operated by a real estate company.
Schieber Blackburn said she is "elated we've gotten this far (with recovery house legislation) in such a short amount of time. I'm very, very pleased. This is the best news."
But she has concerns about the Senate bill, specifically that it would allow homes to maintain certifications for two years.
“I’d like to see inspections more often,” she said. “Things can change an awful lot in a short period of time. I think it would be smarter to have annual inspections."
She also believes regulations should make sure that anyone involved in operating recovery homes has a working knowledge of substance dependence and its behaviors to best serve the residents.
“The whole thing, for me, is they have to have knowledge of addiction, how the mind of the addict works,” she said. “They have to be on top of it 24/7.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@calkins.com; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Poor find it harder to get free legal help for civil cases

Posted June 7, 2017




Since she became homeless two years ago, Renee has felt invisible. And without a copy of her birth certificate, she essentially is invisible to government agencies.
Renee, who didn’t want to give her last name, said she lost her belongings — including her purse with identification and government paperwork — when the Bristol Township tent city where she was living was bulldozed in January. She recently moved into the Family Service Association's Bucks County Emergency Homeless Shelter, which requires residents obtain proof of identification — but works with people like Renee to help them get it.  
“I’m starting over,” she explained. “Everything you do, you need ID. I have nothing.”
Renee is among countless Pennsylvanians who face life-changing legal problems but can't afford a lawyer. She's also one of a dwindling number of people who can get free assistance through Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a private nonprofit that provides civil legal services to the lowest income residents of the Philadelphia suburbs, including Bucks and Montgomery counties.
“Not surprisingly, people who have to go to court or have legal problems and don’t have the benefit of legal counsel, let alone advice, are put in a much more vulnerable position to be taken advantage of (by plaintiffs and their lawyers)," said Elizabeth Fritsch, executive director of the Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
And the situation could get worse, she and others worry.
By the numbers
In his 2018 federal budget proposal, President Donald Trump would eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corp., a federally funded national organization that provides most funding for civil legal services for the poor.
Danielle Voight talks to an attorney at a Legal Aid event
That cut, combined with proposed reductions in federal Community Development Block Grants, would reduce Legal Aid funding by 40 percent, according to Ann Tydeman-Solomon, development director for Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The result of those cuts alone would be "thousands" fewer people who could be served, she said, and a widening of the civil "justice gap" experienced by the poor.
The proposed federal funding loss would follow a decade of significant erosion of civil legal resources for the poor in Pennsylvania. 
State appropriations for civil legal services for the poor have dropped 26 percent since the 2007-08 fiscal year, to about $20 million, according to Sam Milkes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, which distributes funding for indigent civil legal services in the state.
Other government and private funding also has declined significantly since 2008, according to a 2014 report to the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee.
One of the most dramatic declines was in the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, which fell to $1.45 million last year — down from $12.2 million in 2009. The account is a pool of money generated from interest on lawyer trust accounts. Attorneys aren't legally able to make money from client funds, so the funds are deposited in the IOLTA when they'd earn less interest than the cost of opening and closing an interest-bearing account.
Before the recession, money from the attorney trust fund accounted for roughly one-third of the state's Legal Aid funding, Milkes said. Now, it's one-tenth. 
The one exception to the losses was a $200,000 increase in Pennsylvania's appropriation for civil legal services for the poor. That raised the state's contribution to $2.66 million, but that's less than half of what is needed, Milkes said. And Gov. Wolf's budget proposes no additional money for 2017-18.
One of the most dramatic declines was in the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, which fell to $1.45 million last year — down from $12.2 million in 2009. The account is a pool of money generated from interest on lawyer trust accounts. Attorneys aren't legally able to make money from client funds, so the funds are deposited in the IOLTA when they'd earn less interest than the cost of opening and closing an interest-bearing account.
Before the recession, money from the attorney trust fund accounted for roughly one-third of the state's Legal Aid funding, Milkes said. Now, it's one-tenth. 
The one exception to the losses was a $200,000 increase in Pennsylvania's appropriation for civil legal services for the poor. That raised the state's contribution to $2.66 million, but that's less than half of what is needed, Milkes said. And Gov. Wolf's budget proposes no additional money for 2017-18.
Less money; less help
Lack of funds means fewer attorneys to provide free legal assistance. 
Statewide, about 100,000 Pennsylvanians receive free legal representation each year, but nearly 2 million who sought help and qualified didn't get it due to lack of Legal Aid funds. Last year alone, Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania reported that it turned down more than 12,000 otherwise eligible residents because it didn’t have enough staff to assist them.
“We have to pick and choose those cases where we think we’ll have the most impact. It’s hard to say no to people, but we have to do it,” Fritsch said. “The bottom line is that we have had less funding over the past several years and so have had to cut back on our cases."
Those who get help are the poorest of the poor, earning no more than 125 percent of the federal income poverty level, or $15,075 for a one-person household this year, according to Legal Aid. That number doesn't include domestic violence victims, who are assisted regardless of income, according to the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.
Civil legal matters can include child custody disputes, mortgage foreclosures, tenant disputes, personal bankruptcy, unemployment or Social Security Disability claims, and other such matters.
Even something as seemingly mundane as obtaining a copy of a birth certificate can require legal help -- and Renee was one of nearly 50 people who registered for free legal help at an event that was co-sponsored by Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Bucks County Bar Association. Legal Aid staff attorneys and volunteer lawyers from the bar association provided the help at the May event. 
How hard can it be to get something as seemingly simple as a copy of your birth certificate?  
Karl Johnson and Justina Brewington, who were among two dozen walk-ins seeking help at the May event, offered an explanation.
Without state identification, they couldn't get copies of their birth certificates. Without his birth certificate, Johnson couldn't get a state ID card, which he needed to get a job. And without a job, he couldn't afford the $20 the state charges for a birth certificate.   
“We’re stuck,” said Brewington, who recently moved into the homeless shelter with Johnson and their infant son.
Fighting for funds
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf Jr., R-12, of Willow Grove, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been a staunch advocate for improved funding for indigent civil defense and has introduced legislation to continue the 2002 Access to Justice Act and ensure it provides adequate funding.
The Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network found the $53.6 million invested in Pennsylvania’s indigent civil legal services in 2011 yielded $594 million in income and savings for state residents and supported 2,643 jobs by helping people access federal programs that provide housing, unemployment, disability or Social Security benefits. 
The Legislature hasn't taken any action on recommendations to boost funding for civil justice representation, Greenleaf said.
Meanwhile, people who can't get help from Legal Aid are referred to local bar associations, which refer them to private attorneys who have agreed to charge reduced rates for financially qualified clients. 
The Bucks County Bar Association has 36 attorneys in its Civil Marginal Income Program, said Lynn Abbonizio, the referral service administrator. The agency doesn't disclose income guidelines to the public and considers only people who are referred from Legal Aid. Last year, the program referred 139 individuals to participating attorneys, down from 207 in 2010, Abbonizio said.
The Modest Means Legal Access Project is a joint project of the Montgomery County Bar Association and Legal Aid. Participating attorneys offer reduced fees to qualified clients for civil matters, according Nancy Walsh, coordinator of the association’s Access to Justice program. Last year, about 300 people qualified under the program, which refers individuals to private attorneys who charge a discounted $75 an hour. 
Recently, the program was overhauled to better address the growing gap in access to civil attorneys, Walsh said. It almost doubled the qualifying income threshold from 125 percent of the federal poverty limit to 200 percent, which is $24,120 for a one-person household this year. The Montgomery County Bar Association also hired a coordinator to work with nonprofit agencies and recruit more attorneys.
“This will allow us to reach more people in need of affordable legal assistance than ever before,” Walsh said
.

House lawmakers pass bill to create voluntary regulations for recovery houses

Posted June 7, 2017


Pennsylvania lawmakers have taken a step toward establishing a statewide voluntary certification process for homes for newly sober drug and alcohol abusers, but two Bucks County representatives said the bill needs tweaks to make it stronger.
Leonard Spearing
The state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs would be responsible for creating the guidelines for inspection and certification of recovery homes, under House Bill 119, which the House unanimously passed Wednesday. DDAP is responsible for the licensing and oversight of drug and alcohol treatment programs and centers in the state. 
Introduced by Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, the bill would disqualify recovery house operators and owners who fail to obtain certification from receiving state or federal funding, and require licensed treatment centers and programs to refer clients to only certified recovery homes. The bill would bar recovery house owners or employees from requiring residents to sign over any public assistance benefits.
The bill also would limit a single owner to operating no more than five recovery homes, require criminal background checks for owners and employees, and bar individuals convicted of specific crimes from operating certified homes.
An array of recommendations from the state’s Certified Drug and Alcohol Recovery Housing Task Force released last year — ethical standards, physical and structural requirements for houses, procedural and organizational standards, safety, good neighbor and enforcement policies — also are included in the bill.
Kaufer’s bill now moves to the Senate, where a similar bill has been introduced. 
Like most states, Pennsylvania has no operating standards, employee training requirements or review protocol for recovery and sober living homes, which are supposed to provide structured, drug-free housing and support for recovering substance abusers as they rebuild their lives after treatment or prison. Recovery house residents are protected from discrimination under federal housing and disability laws, which makes imposing regulations difficult, local and state officials have said.
The lack of government oversight has made it difficult for recovering addicts, their families and local officials to learn much about recovery houses, including where they're located, who runs them and if they provide the sober and safe environment that those who treat substance abusers say is critical to lasting sobriety.

At least 122 confirmed recovery houses were operating in Bucks County last year, according to an analysis by this news organization. More than three-quarters of them were in Bristol Township, where they have faced intense public scrutiny.
Bristol Township police responded to 17 medical dispatch calls for overdoses at recovery houses last year, including two deaths, according to Lt. Ralph Johnson. Last month, Bucks County detectives charged a 25-year-old man with selling drugs in the Middletown recovery house where he lived. The charges came after two house residents survived overdoses of heroin mixed with fentanyl and other residents claimed they bought drugs from the man.
On Wednesday, Rep. Frank Farry, R-142, of Langhorne, who has advocated for recovery house regulation since 2013, called the House bill a good first step, but said that both it and a companion Senate bill need work. He wants to see stronger language in the bill, including a provision that county probation and parole offices could place offenders under its supervision only in a state certified recovery house.
“It’s absolutely a step in the right direction,” Farry added. “There is good stuff in (the bill) but it doesn’t get fully to where I think it needs to be. It needs to be tightened up.”
Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, of Bristol Township, said that she worked with Kaufer on his bill and that some of its amendments came out of recovery house bills that she had also introduced.
“I’m happy that it’s a start. At least we’re on the books for something,” Davis said.
But Davis is disappointed that two major provisions in her bills are not included: a mandatory annual inspection of houses to maintain certification and language that would include penalties for licensed treatment centers that refer to uncertified recovery residences. She also expressed concern that DDAP has indicated it wants to limit the number of certifications to 500 homes.
Recovery house owner Bryan Kennedy said he and other members of the Bucks County Recovery House Association provided insight and direction to lawmakers drafting the certification bill.
"We support certifications of recovery houses in hope that it shuts down some of the poorly run rogue houses in our community that give the recovery house community at large a negatively tainted reputation as a whole," said Kennedy, who chairs the recovery house association. "A recovery house should be held accountable in providing what they claim to provide."
Local parents whose adult children had fatal overdoses in places they thought were regulated recovery houses said the effort to bring standards and oversight to recovery houses and sober living homes is long overdue.
Horsham resident Leonard Spearing lost his son, also named Leonard, 33, from a drug overdose in November 2015, less than a week after he left drug rehab and entered what Spearing believed was a recovery house in Bristol Township. The home’s owner, whose application to open a recovery house was denied for zoning reasons, has denied the shared residence was a recovery house, though county 911 records as far back as 2012 listed it as one.
Spearing said he is glad the recovery house legislation is moving forward, but strongly believes it needs to include language that would require any resident receiving any public assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid, to only live in a certified recovery or sober living home. Similarly, he believes that treatment centers should recommend only certified recovery homes and inform clients or family if a home is not state certified.
Middletown resident Angelina Lafaro Mundy was pleased to learn the House bill would bar house owners and employees from requiring residents to turn over public benefits. Her daughter Katelynne Sheaf, 27, who fatally overdosed in the same house as Spearing’s son in June 2015, used her food stamps to pay rent in recovery houses, she said. Lafaro Mundy also called criminal background checks for owners, operators and employees crucial.
She added that she cannot see why a legitimate recovery home operator would not get state certification.
“Even as a first pass, which may need tweaking, this bill is a step toward securing a safer and more regimented environment which will encourage continued growth towards recovery,” she added.

State report issued on child welfare agency in Grace Packer case

Posted June 7, 2017


Sara Packer at her January 2017 arraignment
A for-profit foster care agency that is under state scrutiny appears to be following the rules necessary to maintain its Pennsylvania license as a child welfare provider, according to an interim report from the Department of Human Services.
The IMPACT Project, based in Lehigh County, drew the attention of state and local child welfare officials earlier this year for its connection to Sara Packer, the former IMPACT child welfare worker accused in last year's rape, murder and dismemberment of her 14-year-old adopted daughter, Grace.
The state review was prompted by IMPACT’s prior practice of permitting employees to foster children under the agency's care without state approval, along with recent allegations from former Packer foster children that staff members ignored complaints about abusive behavior a decade ago, DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Indicted former deputy constable listed as founder of two local charities

Posted May 26, 2017

Your Giving Hands and H.O.P.E. for Single Parents and Families were organizations that shared a common stated mission — helping local people struggling financially. They also shared a common founder — suspended Lower Southampton deputy constable Bernard Rafferty, one of three Lower Southampton officials facing federal money laundering charges.
Bernard Rafferty

The organizations merged in 2012. Neither group nor the merged organization filed state or federal financial disclosure forms showing how much money was collected and distributed annually. Neither group nor the merged organization has been designated as a federally recognized nonprofit, which allows donors to make tax-deductible donations and frees organizations from paying state and federal taxes on any money collected or on anything they buy.

This news organization started looking at the two groups following the December 2016 arrest of Rafferty, Robert Hoopes, who was then Lower Southampton's public safety director, and then-Lower Southampton District Judge John Waltman on federal charges of conspiracy and money laundering. A U.S. grand jury indicted the men for allegedly conspiring between 2015 and 2016 to launder $400,000 that they were told were the proceeds of health care fraud, drug trafficking and bank fraud, but were really part of an undercover investigation, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Hoopes was terminated and Waltman was suspended after the arrests. The trial for the three is scheduled for October in U.S. District Court, Philadelphia.

The H.O.P.E. website and Facebook page list Hoopes' former Doylestown Township law office as the place where donations could be mailed or dropped off. Hoopes' defense attorney in the fraud case, Megan Scheib, declined to comment on his relationship to the organization.

The lack of public financial records and charity registration by Hands and H.O.P.E. and the connections to Rafferty and Hoopes caught the attention of Bucks County Consumer Protection Director Michael Bannon, who confirmed his office asked the state Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations to investigate. A state spokeswoman said the bureau doesn't confirm investigations.

“The lack of information as a charitable organization is concerning me,” Bannon said. “The bottom line is, how much money did they raise?”

Available information — including H.O.P.E.’s website, Lower Southampton meeting minutes, and interviews with donors and other familiar with the organizations — confirmed that Hands received at least one $500 donation and H.O.P.E. received at least $1,500 in donations

However, there's no definitive answer to Bannon's question, since the groups didn't file financial disclosure documents.

The co-founder of H.O.P.E. declined to answer questions and Rafferty’s defense attorney, Brian Puricelli, didn't return emails or calls seeking comment.

Charities and nonprofits don’t need federal tax-exempt status to operate, according to Jennifer Chandler, of the National Council of Nonprofits in Washington, D.C. But in addition to paying taxes and not accepting tax-deductible donations, they would be required to file annual tax returns. Such tax returns aren't public documents so there's no indication if they were filed.

State law doesn't require nonprofits and charities with annual incomes under $25,000 to register to solicit donations or to submit annual financial disclosure documents, according to Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State. “If they are exempt from registering, we don’t know how much they’ve raised. We count on organizations following the law and a great many of them do,” she said.

Your Giving Hands was created as a nonprofit corporation with the Pennsylvania Department of State on Dec. 31, 2009, and is still listed as active, according to the state agency's website. Its address is listed as a Lower Southampton gas station, according to copies of the filing documents.

Hands had a website that was active in September 2011, according to the internet archive the Way Back Machine. The site is no longer active and it's unknown when it was removed. 

The website described Hands as a nonprofit that provided a "helping hand to people in need within our community," and listed Rafferty as its contact.
H.O.P.E. was founded in March 2012 and Rafferty was named executive vice president in July of that year, according to the H.O.P.E. website, which was active as an individual organization as of May 24, along with its Facebook page.

The H.O.P.E. and Hands groups announced their merger in December 2012, according to a story this news organization published.
Bernard Rafferty (Left) and Kelly Harold
In a Jan. 29 email response to an interview request, H.O.P.E. co-founder, president and CEO Kelly Harold said the organization — which its website described as a transitional housing program — hasn't been active for a few years “due to some unforeseen circumstances.” She did not provide further details.

In a Feb. 13 Facebook message to this reporter, she said Rafferty was part of H.O.P.E. because he had “connections. He would introduce me and I would network. He believed in my dream. That was all. He was only co-founder because one day I met him and was sharing my idea and he introduced me to many people and helped me get connections. Then he went to monthly meetings. That was it.”