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Monday, October 31, 2016
Overdose death raises questions for Bristol Township sober house run by property company
Tom and Jessica Blackburn lost daughter Victoria Exner last year
Posted: Oct 30, 2016
When Victoria Exner moved into a sober home on Ironwood Road in Bristol Township last year, the only thing that struck her family as strange was the name they wrote on money orders for her rent: Official House Buyers LLC.
It wasn't until months after Exner died of a fatal cocaine overdose there that her Buckingham family learned the house was owned and operated by a business that flips real estate and allows practices at its sober house — such as co-ed living — that some addiction management experts warn can put residents at risk for relapse.
As the first anniversary of Exner's Nov. 3, 2015, death approaches, her parents are questioning why a company that buys and sells houses is running a home for recovering substance abusers.
“It’s ridiculous,” her stepfather, Tom Blackburn, said during a recent interview.
But not unheard of. At least four other real estate-related companies are landlords for a minimum of 13 confirmed recovery residences in Bucks County, though some appear to rent the properties to third parties that operate the recovery/sober houses, according to county property records and a database this news organization compiled of Bucks County recovery houses.
For local and state lawmakers and addiction specialists, the Ironwood Road home highlights the need for outside oversight and minimum operating standards to govern a lucrative, unregulated and fast-growing segment of the housing industry. Recovery and sober living residences are supposed to provide a structured, safe and drug-free environment that supports individuals seeking long-term sobriety. Their residents are protected from discrimination under federal housing and disability laws.
PARR Executive Director Fred Way expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of a recovery residence operator with no professional training or education in drug treatment or addiction management.
“How many in-house meetings are they doing? What kind of life skills (training) is going on in the house?” Way asked. “Is it another house that people are labeling it a recovery house that technically is not?”
The Ironwood Road house is the first — and only — “sober living house” owned by Official House Buyers LLC, a Bristol Township property company, according to Jonathan Geftman, who identified himself as an owner and manager of the company. He described the sober house as a transitional residence for individuals who have been sober for at least six months.
Before moving in, residents must pass a drug test, complete an application process and provide references, Geftman said. Residents are expected to “self-police” their behaviors, complete assigned household chores and submit to regular random drug testing, but there are no rules or expectations other than those, Geftman said.
“It’s not a place where you clock in or clock out,” he added. “It’s not a jail. I think clocking in and clocking out with this type of home could be offensive to the residents.”
A house manager oversees daily operations, but it’s not a live-in position. The manager and other staff members visit the house throughout the day to monitor activity, Geftman said. The manager, who Geftman hired, came “highly recommended” from another long-term recovery house operator, according to Geftman, who said the manager has nine years of experience managing recovery and sober living homes and is a trained first responder.
Sober homes are considered the last stop on the recovery residence continuum for people who have with been sober for a sustained period of time and who are self-sufficient or close to it, according to Way. Individuals typically progress to sober living homes after staying in a recovery house, which is a more structured aftercare residence that is designed to provide intense supervision, emotional support and job and life skills building following drug treatment or prison. A typical recovery house stay is at least three months, but NARR has no similar minimum standard for sober living homes.
“Individuals should have some clean time under their belt if they are going into a sober living home, no doubt,” Way said. “They have the freedom to go and come because they have earned that.”
While residents of sober houses have earned more independence, structure is still important, according to NARR, which recommends -- at a minimum -- random drug screenings, in-house meetings and encouraging residents to attend self-help meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous. Some state affiliates, like PARR, require sober living homes that seek their certification to implement certain rules, including minimal curfews and requirements that residents attend some outside self-help meetings, Way said.
Official House Buyers LLC purchased the formerly vacant home in the 100 block of Ironwood Road for $135,000 in May 2015 with the intention of opening a sober house, Geftman said. The house is in the Indian Creek section of Levittown, where at least eight other recovery residences are located, according to township records.
The business applied to Bristol Township’s Department of Licenses and Inspections to open a “sober living facility” with 10 bedrooms and shared common areas in June 2015, and passed the township-required inspection in late August with approval for up to 12 occupants, township property records show. The first tenants — who are charged an average of $160 a week — moved in on Sept. 1, 2015, Geftman said, adding the company has no plans to open additional recovery residences.
“It seemed like a productive use of the property,” he said. “It also seemed like a good idea to be in a position to have a quality property for people to have a second chance and shelter.”
LIKE OTHER HOMES
According to her family, Exner had struggled with opiate addiction since high school. By the time she arrived at Ironwood Road, she had been in and out of detox and rehabs and had lived in two other recovery houses in less than a year, her mother, Jessica Schieber Blackburn, said.
Schieber Blackburn said she contacted at least a dozen recovery residences in an unsuccessful search of a bed for her daughter before someone gave her the phone number for the Ironwood Road house. It was the first house that had an immediate opening, she said.
When they visited, Schieber Blackburn said the home appeared to be well-maintained and clean, and residents were drug tested. But what she said they they didn't know was that the home was co-ed and the manager didn't live there. Schieber Blackburn said her daughter didn't tell her if she filled out a rental application or received other paperwork before she entered the house.
“It looked just like all the other (recovery) homes,” Schieber Blackburn added. “I thought the people running the house were the owners.”
Schieber Blackburn said she was surprised when her daughter asked her to write a money order for the rent, addressing it to what sounded like a business. “I thought it was strange, but I didn’t question it,” she said. "Shame on me."
After all, she said, Exner appeared to be on the path to maintaining her sobriety this time. She worked as a house cleaner and waitress. Most of the time, she paid her rent without her parents' help. She attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings and was sober for six months, her family said, a milestone commemorated in the colored NA key chains her mom has kept.
The Blackburns insisted Exner lived at Ironwood Road at least starting in September and showed the money order receipts they said proved it. Geftman, though, said his records show she lived there three weeks.
“She was really so proud of herself and we were proud of her,” Schieber Blackburn said.
“She looked great,” Tom Blackburn added. “She was her old happy self.”
Word-of-mouth referrals like the Blackburns described are what Official House Buyers relies on, Geftman said. The company doesn't work with drug treatment providers, a frequent referral source for recovery residences, he said.
Prospective residents fill out a one-page screening application that includes questions about 12-step meeting attendance in the previous month and whether the person has a 12-step sponsor, as well as emergency contact and sponsor information, Geftman said. He declined to provide this news organization with a copy of the application, which he said was supplied to him by another long-term recovery house.
HOPE AND ASPIRATION
And while the house is co-ed, men and women don't share bedrooms, Geftman said. Aside from one fight after which both participants were evicted, no problems have occurred with the co-ed living arrangement, he said. Residents are given week-to-week leases and someone who's removed for failing to follow house rules gets unused rent refunded, he said.
“We don’t want these people to be homeless,” he added.
Tenants typically stay at Ironwood Road for an average of six to nine months, Geftman said.
He described the house’s drug testing policy as random, explaining that some tests are done on back-to-back days while others are done weekly. He said all resident information, including the drug test logs are maintained, though he declined to say where the information is stored. Officials House Buyers doesn't supply Narcan – the opiate overdose reversal drug – to the house, he added.
“The hope and aspiration is the people who are occupants will ultimately be renting their own apartments rather than live in a shared facility,” Geftman added. “Official house Buyers is proud that many occupants of Ironwood have made commitments to themselves and have improved their lives and those in their lives.”
Not long after the house opened, state Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, Bristol Township, visited the house, Geftman said. A “mutual acquaintance” suggested Geftman contact Davis because she wanted to see the conditions there. Geftman declined to provide the acquaintance’s name. During her visit, Geftman said, Davis complimented the house, telling him that it was not only well organized, but “superior” to other recovery houses she had seen.
Davis has a different recollection of the meeting.
“I was getting tons of complaints from neighbors (about the home)," she said. “I didn’t consider them a recovery house.” Jessica Schieber Blackburn and Thomas Blackburn stand next to the orchid which they named after daughter Victoria Exner, who died of a drug overdose after being found unresponsive at the sober living house where she was residing. The state lawmaker, who has proposed legislation for voluntary recovery and sober house certification, agreed the house appeared to be well-maintained, but she said she observed only the common areas, not the locked bedrooms. She expressed concerns to Geftman about the house accepting men and women and its application form, which Davis said didn’t contain questions about sobriety or drug use.
During the visit, Davis said she suggested the house join the Bucks County Recovery House Association, a local network of private recovery house owners and operators that practice peer-monitoring and oversight of member homes and are a PARR affiliate. Geftman said he considered joining, but hasn’t applied. He declined to say why.
Bucks County Emergency Dispatch records show police responded to six calls at the house during the three months after it opened. So far this year, police have responded to six calls, including a domestic disturbance, an unwanted person, a threat and an abandoned 911 call, according to county records. Police have also made 11 offender checks — when probation and parole officers visit an offender at home or work — at the home since September 2015, according to dispatch records.
Among the 911 calls at the house last year, two reported cardiopulmonary arrest and active seizures on Nov. 2, 2015, the day Exner was found unconscious in her bedroom. Two days later, police responded to the report of a second overdose/poisoning and cardiac arrest at the house, records show, but no additional information was noted.
Available township records show at least six people moved in and out of the home the first month it was open. Five left after six days, according to letters that Official House Buyers submitted to the township listing tenant names for earned-income tax purposes. Additional letters listing tenants included the dates residents left the house, but not when they entered, so it’s unknown how long they stayed. The most recent tenant list was submitted in March, according to an October review of township records for the property.
PARR’s Way said some of the administrative and operational practices described by Geftman and the turnover noted in the available records were questionable.
A high resident turnover rate can be a red flag for recovery and sober houses that suggests poor management, he said. NARR standards also strongly discourage co-ed recovery houses. During the first year of sobriety, addiction management professionals advocate avoiding sexual and romantic relationships, which are seen as distracting and disruptive and place individuals at risk for relapse, Way explained. PARR and NARR standards bar managers from working in opposite-sex homes, he added.
The combination of a co-ed home and lack of an on-site manager and unpredictable supervision raises a potential “major” red flag for resident safety, according to Way.
While it’s common for recovery house operators to require residents make weekly rent payments, they typically have month-to-month leases, Way said. He’s never heard of week-to-week agreements. Any house rules or guidelines also should be provided to residents in writing, including refund policies and penalties for late payments or non-payments, he added.
“Everything should be in writing,” Way added. “They should be keeping records of the urine testing, and the chore list should be hung up in the house where any visitor can see it. It’s easy to say what you have; it’s harder to produce what you have.”
Of the 21 fatal drug overdoses in Bristol Township last year, Exner was the only one at a confirmed sober or recovery residence, according to police.
The Philadelphia Medical Examiner autopsy report confirmed Exner's death was drug-related. It’s the only official record the family has detailing her death, and came after Exner was taken to a hospital after her overdose and declared brain dead.
Bristol Township police haven't returned Schieber Blackburn's calls and won’t release the incident report, citing state law that protects materials that are part of a criminal investigation, she said. This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Bristol Township police Lt. Terry Hughes for comment on any police investigation. The family's attorney, Keith Williams, who was hired to find out more details about Exner's death, said the Bucks County District Attorney's Office told him police found no evidence of a crime.
Much of what the family says it knows about what happened before and after Exner's body was found is bits and pieces of third-hand information, Schieber Blackburn said, like how paramedics worked on Exner for 45 minutes until they heard a faint heartbeat and took her to the hospital.
Her daughter’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor notified the family about the overdose, Schieber Blackburn said. The only person with Official House Buyers who contacted the family after the overdose was the house manager. He wanted to know if he could pack up Exner’s belongings so her room could be rented, Schieber Blackburn said.
The call came before the family had the life support machines disconnected, she said.
Not all of Exner’s belongings at the home were returned and neither was the balance of the rent they paid, Schieber Blackburn said, noting her daughter had no will.
Geftman responded that any property, including unused rent, that belonged to Exner would have to be passed to her estate. “It happens to be the law of the land,” he added.
"What 29-year-old is thinking of getting a will," Schieber Blackburn said. "I am insulted. It's adding insult to injury."
Geftman declined to comment on the death, beyond calling it “tragic” and saying he wanted to respect the family’s privacy. He said he hasn't contacted the family.
Meanwhile, Schieber Blackburn believes she was misled. She said she wouldn't have let her daughter live at the Ironwood home if she had known a real estate flipping company operated it and that it had few rules and minimal supervision.
“That blew us away,” she said. “My understanding was this is where people that are addicted go to get structure in their life."