Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Thursday, May 12, 2016
Bucks court system relies on Bucks County Recovery House Association
Posted: Tuesday, April 19, 2016
For more than 10 years, Bucks County residents on parole or probation have been allowed to live only in recovery houses that are part of a court-approved list.
Virtually all the approved houses on that list are members of the Bucks County Recovery House Association, a network of private, for-profit residences. The only exception is a recovery house in New Britain that is run by a drug treatment advocacy group.
Bucks County Recovery House Association members
Roughly 150 of the approximately 4,500 Bucks County residents supervised by the department live in a recovery or sober living house - or they listed one as their last known address - according to Warren Grant, deputy chief of Bucks County Adult Probation and Parole Department. At least another 17 people participating in the Bucks County Drug Court program also live in these department-approved recovery houses, according to court officials.
The arrangement was created more than a decade ago after probation and parole officers found serious problems at some recovery houses, including a house manager who provided clean urine for drug testing, Grant said. With no way to know if a house was well-run, the court relied on the then-newly formed Bucks association to follow peer monitoring and quality standards, Grant said.
“We want to have houses that have some type of oversight or some standards some things in place that we didn’t have before,” said Grant, who is also coordinator of the county’s drug court program.
No formal agreement between the two entities exists, though association homes have access to federal grant money to cover short-term stays and intake fees for low-income drug court participants.
A “memo of understanding” was recently drafted outlining the responsibilities of the Bucks association. They include monitoring residents' sobriety through random drug testing, posting association standards and resident bill of rights in houses, and agreeing to unannounced inspections by adult probation and parole.
The memo was drafted after Calkins Media requested access to a copy of the original 2004 agreement, which court officials later said they were unsure existed.
Two lawyers for advocacy groups questioned the directive about living in Bucks association houses.
That directive was issued by former Bucks County President Judge Kenneth Biehn, who's now retired, and adult probation and parole has followed it ever since, Grant said.
Current President Judge Jeffrey Finley said he supports the policy and the court's authority to implement it because where a person on parole or probation lives is something the court could include in an individual’s supervision plan.
Neither the court nor adult probation and parole provides any oversight of the Bucks association houses, though Grant said he attends monthly association meetings.
He said the department doesn't keep any records about the homes, but he personally conducts unannounced inspections of approved homes four times a year -- typically accompanied by another association member. He said he inspects about 28 homes for items including running water, heat, pest-free environments, working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Concerns arising from those inspections are forwarded to an association committee for investigation, Grant said.
Bucks County Recovery House Association meeting
Fewer than a dozen complaints involving association homes have been lodged with the Bristol Township Department of Licenses and Inspections since 2011, according to this news organization’s review of more than 100 property records. Most association-run homes are in Bristol Township. Most complaints involved allegations of poor property maintenance.
The deputy legal director of the Philadelphia chapter of the ACLU said it’s not unusual for probation and parole departments to use an approved list of service or housing providers. But if the recovery houses on the approved list follow only offer a religious-based program, it could violate the civil rights of an individual who doesn’t want a religious-based program, the ACLU's Mary Catherine Roper said.
Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, agreed that probation and parole can restrict where court-ordered individuals live including recovery houses, but doubted the same restriction could apply to parolees or probationers who voluntarily live in a recovery house -- and certainly shouldn't be able to hit them with parole or probation violations if they refused to move into the RHA house.
“That is troubling,” Love added. “I don’t see how they can possibly mandate they go to one of their programs.”
Grant said his office wouldn't file a probation or parole violation against someone only for refusing to move out of an unapproved recovery house alone. He also said he wasn't aware of any court supervised offense seeking a court order to stay in an unapproved home.
“Honestly, to my knowledge there has never been anybody (given a violation) because they didn’t want to go to an approved house,” Grant added. “I can’t think there are that many (individuals) that have been told they have to leave.”
Court records tell a different story.
Since last year, at least two people under court supervision obtained court orders allowing them to continue living in unapproved homes. This news organization is withholding the identities of those people because they were concerned about retaliation by the county.
One of the men who obtained a court order, a 29-year-old recovering heroin addict, claimed he received a parole violation after he refused to move from the recovery home he had been living in for two months. The man moved into the home after he was discharged from a drug treatment center that he entered voluntarily. A Bucks County judge dismissed the violation and granted the man a court order in May 2015 to remain in the recovery home, according to court records.
In an interview, the man claimed he had previously lived in five BCRHA-run homes and relapsed in all of them. As of early April, he said he had been sober 11 months and was still living at the "unapproved" recovery house, working full time and he recently bought his first car.
“This place (recovery house) is a huge part of that,” the man added. “I made the mistake. I put myself in the situation. You can monitor me, but how can you tell me where I can live when I am doing what I’m supposed to do?”
The other man, a 34-year-old recovering heroin addict, said his probation officer told him he had to move two weeks after he was admitted to a non-RHA recovery house. The man called his lawyer, who obtained a court order on Feb. 19 allowing him to stay put, according to records.
“I chose to do the right thing and continue down the path of sobriety,” the man said. “What I didn’t expect was them to have a problem with me moving into a house that wasn’t on a stupid list.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: email@example.com; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia