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.”

Officials: More than $100K in overdue taxes owed on Risoldi, Morris properties

Posted May 29, 2017


Clairemont


A 10-acre estate that's the centerpiece of a $20-million insurance fraud case involving a politically prominent Bucks County family could go up for sheriff’s sale later this year for unpaid real estate taxes, along with three other properties.
The estate, with its 5,600-square-foot white Georgian-style mansion known as Clairemont, is owned by the Risoldi family. The other three properties are houses the attorney general's office says the family directly or indirectly owns. All four could be sold in a September sheriff's sale unless the $50,806.10 owed for 2015 is paid in full by June 30, officials said.
All four properties are the subject of a temporary restraining order barring their sale. The order was sought by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, shortly after the January 2015 arrests of family matriarch Claire Risoldi, 69, her son, Carl A. Risoldi, 45, Carl’s wife Shelia Risoldi, 46, and Carl’s sister, Carla V. Risoldi, 50, on insurance fraud charges in connection with an October 2013 fire that heavily damaged Clairemont.
The order was sought because the state believes the properties -- worth an estimated $2.3 million - could be sold for restitution if the Risoldis are convicted. In addition to the two directly owned by the family, the state AG believes the family "indirectly" owns two others, though the name of a family friend, Karl Morris, is on the deed. Morris, who is not facing criminal charges, rents those houses to Carl A. Risoldi and Claire Risoldi.
Bucks County is owed $104,286.15 in back taxes on the properties, including fees and interest, for 2015 and 2016, according to the county tax claim bureau. The bureau collects delinquent real estate taxes and sells tax-delinquent properties, with the proceeds going to county government. Almost half of what is owed -- $46,104.31 – is for Clairemont. The Risoldis have until June 30, 2018 to pay the 2016 taxes or face the threat of sheriff's sale again.
2008 event at Clairemont hosted by the Risoldis
In a voice mail to this reporter, Claire Risoldi said: "I want you to be sure when you write your story that you make it understood that we have been trying to pay our taxes, but due to the fact the judge is off of the case until the decision is made from the higher court if he will remain our judge on this litigation, he cannot make a decision on us paying our taxes.”
Attorney Michael Jay Diamondstein, who represents Carl A. Risoldi, said the family doesn’t have the money to pay the taxes.
“There is nothing more that Carl Risoldi would like to do than pay the outstanding taxes, however the OAG (Office of Attorney General) is standing in the way of his ability to do so,” Diamondstein said. “They have seized all the Risoldis’ money and then they have the unmitigated gall to file a motion in court to ask them to pay money they don’t have.”
Diamondstein said that even if the Risoldis lost the fraud case, all they could potentially owe is the alternative living expenses that insurer AIG paid, which is less than $1 million.  The state alleges AIG paid $11 million for damages in the 2013 fire.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching attorneys representing Claire and Carla Risoldi for comment. Family members have consistently denied any wrongdoing in the fraud case. Attorney Jake Griffin, who represents Morris, declined comment.
The state alleges in court documents that Morris bought two homes, in the 4800 and 4900 blocks of Danielle Drive, at the request of Claire Risoldi and paid for them with “unlawfully obtained” insurance proceedings from the Risoldis. The fourth property, also in the 4800 block of Danielle Drive, is owned by Gemini Capital Limited Group LLC. But the AG’s office alleges settlement documents show it's actually owned by Carl A. Risoldi.
The Risoldi siblings and Morris don't owe real estate taxes on other properties they own, according to county tax records.
Carl Risoldi, who owns Clairemont with his sister, Carla, asked Senior Judge Thomas Gavin, who's overseeing the case, to release $50,000 in frozen family assets to pay the delinquent taxes. In addition to the four properties, the state has seized more than $3 million in vehicles and cash from the family in connection to the fraud case. That motion is pending in county court.
The AG’s office opposes the release of seized assets to pay the taxes. It also filed a motion asking Gavin to delay the tax sales and order the Risoldis’ pay their taxes. That motion is also pending.
The attorney general's motion said the state believes the Risoldis could have paid the taxes when they were due, but chose not to do so.
“A review of the defendants’ financial documents for 2015 reveals that they had access to more than $600,000,” according to the motion. “Additionally, a review of the defendants’ expenses for 2015 shows an amount in excess of $48,072 due in taxes (at that time) was spent on antiques, jewelry, country club expenses and landscaping. All expenses that should not have taken priority over the real estate tax obligation.”
A trial date for the Risoldis, who are free on bail, remains on indefinite hold while several related matters are pending before the state Superior Court.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

State hearing in Bristol Township urges action on voluntary regulation of recovery residences

Posted April 10, 2017


After they didn’t hear from their 31-year-old son for several days, a Lancaster County couple called him at the Bristol Township recovery house where was living after he completed inpatient drug treatment.

Jessica & Tom Blackburn (center & right) who lost their daughter
That's when the couple learned that their son died of a drug overdose — nearly a week earlier. For six days, his body remained unclaimed in the Bucks County morgue, according to Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, of Bristol Township.

“No one notified them,” Davis said. “They were horrified that their son was treated like a piece of meat.”

The Mount Joy couple wrote Davis a letter detailing how they found out about their son’s March 19 death. Davis shared the story Monday at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing for one of two bills she has introduced to establish a voluntary certification process for drug-free, peer-supported transitional homes for recovering substance abusers seeking long-term sobriety.

The hearing was held at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Bristol Township — a town that has one of the highest concentrations of recovery houses in the state — to gather testimony about how communities are handling the influx of this lucrative, fast-growing and unregulated segment of the housing market. Bristol Township's 16 square miles has nearly 100 of the estimated 122 identified recovery and sober living homes in Bucks County. Montgomery County has at least seven identified recovery houses, according to county officials.

Last year, there were 21 drug-related deaths in Bristol Township. Police responded to 17 medical dispatch calls for overdoses at recovery houses, including two deaths; 12 calls for overdoses at apartment complexes, including three deaths; and 11 calls for overdoses at hotels, including five deaths, according to Lt. Ralph Johnson.

Like most states, Pennsylvania has no operating standards, employee training requirements or review or certification process for recovery homes, whose residents are protected from discrimination under federal housing and disability laws. The protections make imposing regulations difficult, local and state officials said. The lack of oversight has made it difficult for families, recovering addicts and officials to know much about recovery houses, including where they're located, who runs them and if they provide a sober and safe environment critical to lasting sobriety.

Bristol Township Councilman Howard Allen testified that recovery homes are the number one concern he hears from residents, and most complaints are not with the well-managed one but the homes that have lax supervision and rules. Allen said Bristol Township was among a handful of local communities that tightened and revamped zoning ordinances last year to better define group homes, but more state and federal guidelines are needed.

Micki Kaisinger (center) with Diane Rosati (left)
“We need a base minimum standard for these homes,” he said. “We’re trying. We need your help.”

Micki Kaisinger, co-owner and co-operator of five recovery houses for women, told the legislative panel it's difficult for operators who follow local rules and require curfews, drug-testing and mandatory chores to compete with the recovery homes that have few rules, are overcrowded and don’t require drug testing.

Given the high risk for relapse among drug abusers, particularly ones early in recovery, structure in a recovery house is essential, she said.

“This is not a business where you can put a bunch of people into a house and hope for the best,” she said.

Diane Rosati, executive director of the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission, testified that her department, which oversees state drug treatment funding, will provide money only to recovery houses in the Bucks County Recovery House Association, a group of owners and operators who created their own standards and policies they enforce among members.

Rosati wants to see state legislation that would bar state funding to uncertified recovery residences, require that county drug and alcohol councils are notified in writing when a new recovery or sober home opens and require certified homes keep naloxone, the opiate reversal drug, on premise and show proof that individuals are trained in how to use it and require documentation of when the drug is used.
Rep. Tina Davis (far right) 

Davis’ two bills are among a handful of proposed laws that seek to bring professional and physical standards, a code of ethics, and oversight to recovery residences by establishing a voluntary certification process.

HB 335, which was the focus on Monday’s hearing, would create a state board of recovery residences within the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs. Residences seeking certification would be inspected annually and required to submit policies including recovery, relapse, good neighbor, drug-testing and safety programs. It also would require a certified residence be actively managed by a certified recovery residence administrator who holds a valid certificate of compliance with the Board. The bill is in the House Human Services Committee for consideration.

Two other Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced similar bills that would mandate some form of certification or licensure for recovery residences.

Since the standards are voluntary, recovery house owners and operators would decide if they want to seek certification. But operators that remain uncertified would lose access to state funding that can cover stays for low-income residents and referrals from state licensed drug treatment centers that receive state funding, according to the proposed legislation, including Davis’ bill.

The voluntary nature of the proposed legislation didn’t sit well with some of the 25 people in the audience at the hearing. They included Bristol Township Council President Craig Bowen, who urged the lawmakers to take a chance and pass a bill that would create mandatory regulations, though such blanket regulations have withstood legal challenges from home operators elsewhere.

Meanwhile a parallel effort at regulations through the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs appear to be in a holding pattern, according to agency spokeswoman Carol Gifford. DDAP is reviewing the proposed state legislation to see how it meshes with the recommendations of the Certified Drug and Alcohol Recovery Housing Task Force released last year and the department.

DDAP anticipates that legislation will give it the ability to license or regulate recovery residences, Gifford said. Currently the agency only licenses and oversees drug and alcohol treatment programs and centers that provide medical care for substance abusers. 

Pennsylvania requires centers that provide medical treatment for substance abuse to be licensed, but recovery house programs do not provide substance abuse treatment.

Horsham resident Leonard Spearing testified about paying for his 33-year-old son, also named Leonard, to live in the Bristol Township “recovery house” that a drug treatment center recommended. Six days after he moved in, in November 2015, Spearing’s son died of a drug overdose in the home.

Spearing testified that he didn’t know at the time that another woman, Katelynne Sheaf, 27, of Middletown, also died of a drug overdose in the same home less than five months earlier, days after she moved in. He also didn’t know the home’s owner — who denied previously he ran a recovery house — had applied for a zoning determination to run a recovery house earlier in 2015, but the application was rejected because it didn’t meet zoning requirements.

“If it’s not a problem now in your community, it will be,” Spearing told the panel. “And people are dying.”

2016 child abuse report not accurate representation, child advocates say

Posted: May 13, 2017

Fourteen-year-old Grace Packer was raped, beaten, drugged and murdered over 18 hours in Bucks County in July 2016. Her dismembered remains were positively identified in early November.
Grace Packer
The next month, Bucks County authorities named her mother as a person of interest in the death. But Grace isn't counted among the 46 children who died in Pennsylvania last year from abuse or neglect, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services 2016 annual child protective services report released May 2. 

A Montgomery County toddler is counted among the 46, though the 2-year-old girl died in July 2015, after authorities said her mother failed to get medical treatment when the girl overdosed on prescription pain medication in a King of Prussia motel room. The mother was charged with manslaughter last year.

This news organization found eight other deaths that occurred prior to 2016, but were included in the report covering last year's fatalities — including one in 2013. Among the 79 near-deaths of children included in the state report, two occurred in 2015 and a third happened in 2014.

A DHS spokeswoman said the agency counts deaths and near-deaths from abuse or neglect in the year in which the agency opens an investigation — which isn't necessarily the year when the crime occurred. The notification triggers a mandatory timetable for county and state child welfare officials to determine if abuse or neglect occurred, under a 2008 law called Act 33.

The way the DHS records these deaths and near-deaths in its annual report has raised concern among some child advocates. They believe inaccurate yearly counts can make the situation look less serious than it is, reducing government attention to potential abuse and neglect cases. They also say it could decrease government efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect and result in government resources being redirected to other areas.

Cathleen Utz, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Office of Children Youth and Families, defended the system, saying: “Somebody has to call us (for the clock to begin)."
DHS officials didn't respond to a call and email seeking additional reaction to child advocate concerns. 

In Bucks County last year, one of five child deaths and three of four near-deaths reviewed by child welfare officials were found to be the result of abuse or neglect, according to state data and county officials. The others were counted among the state's 30 deaths and 54 near-deaths in which abuse or neglect couldn't be substantiated. Determinations are pending in 18 deaths and eight near-deaths.

Findings of abuse and neglect often aren't finalized until a criminal investigation is completed — and sometimes not before the prosecution is completed, according to Bucks County Director of Children and Youth Lynne Rainey. "We review each situation in great detail and learn from those individual fatality reviews that we conduct," Rainey said. 
Sara Packer

Though she died the year before, Grace Packer was reported with the 2017 deaths, since the agency wasn't officially informed her homicide was the result of suspected child abuse until Jan. 9. That was the day after her mother and the mother's boyfriend were charged with the killing, according to DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac.

Packer's death review is due to be completed this month, but officials said it won't be released publicly — probably until after the criminal case concludes. 

The trial for Grace Packer's mom and boyfriend is scheduled for January 2018.
In Montgomery County, child welfare officials substantiated three near-deaths and one death as the result of abuse or neglect last year. The case of the 2-year-old who died after ingesting pills is the only one that occurred before 2016.

Montgomery County’s director of children and youth, Laurie O’Connor, declined to comment on how DHS counts deaths and near-death reports, but noted that data in the state report makes it clear that changes in the reporting laws are increasing the volume of abuse cases. 

“Keeping kids safe is the No. 1 priority for Montgomery County," O'Connor said. "It is our job to investigate those reports and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in 
Philadelphia said accurate annual data is especially important since child welfare and social services agencies have limited budgets and don’t want to concentrate money in the wrong area. He added that each child death and near-death also requires close examination to help child welfare services and advocacy agencies spot problems in the protective services system and correct them.

“If we are not getting accurate data and accurate stories, it’s hard to find where the system is not really working,” Cervone said.

Without timely data, child welfare advocates and officials might fail to recognize trends that could trigger faster efforts at raising red flags and initiating calls for policy changes, said Cathleen Palm, executive director and founder of the Center for Children's Justice, a Berks County child advocacy group.

Reporting delays also put the lives of other children at risk, Palm added. If a Bucks County infant died of an unsafe sleeping situation and — months later — two children in Cambria County died from the same situation, recognizing those deaths or near-deaths could spur the state to remind other county child welfare agencies to make sure caseworkers review proper sleeping conditions with parents of young children, Palm said. 

“Two or three years is too late to find out we have a trend going on. This should not be a treasure hunt," Palm said. "A child’s death or near-death should always be a time to learn, to collaborate and to act with urgency to protect each and every child in that community."

Judge orders release of dying defendant in Evesham attempted murder case

Posted: May 12, 2017


John Teti during recent hospitalization
A dying 79-year-old man charged with attempted murder will be placed into the custody of his niece after a Burlington County Superior Court judge ordered his release from state prison, where he had been awaiting trial.
The prosecution and defense now agree that a trial will likely never happen.
Judge Jeanne T. Covert consented to an agreement reached by both sides that imposes strict conditions on John Teti, a Barrington, Camden County, man who has been incarcerated since his arrest in March 2016 and subsequent indictment in the near-fatal strangling and assault of his estranged wife outside the Evesham home where she lives.
In ordering Teti's release, Covert outlined the conditions, including that his niece, Debra Loggia, of Evesham, provide 24-hour supervision.
No weapons are allowed in the home, and Teti must obey an existing restraining order that mandates no contact with his 69-year-old wife or her family.
“Are you willing to accept this burden?” Covert asked Loggia. “It is an awesome responsibility you are undertaking.”
“Yes, your honor,” she replied.
Loggia has been fighting since February to have the court set aside the $250,000 cash bail and release her uncle into her custody on compassionate grounds, after doctors determined that lung cancer diagnosed after his arrest was terminal. Doctors found that the cancer had spread to his bones and that his health was quickly deteriorating.
The family of Joan Teti, who lives about a mile from Loggia, has steadfastly opposed his release. Joan Teti and family members attended Friday's hearing at the Burlington County Courthouse in Mount Holly, but declined to comment afterward.
Covert acknowledged that the case was “highly emotional” for both families.
“And I have empathy for that,” she said.
In a letter to Covert, Joan Teti wrote why she opposed releasing her estranged husband of 30 years, whom she said she still fears. The judge pointed out that the case against Teti isn’t a “whodunit” and that his wife’s fear is legitimate.
“She is terrified, frankly,” Covert said. “This is very real for this victim.”
John Teti was unable to attend the hearing because of his poor health, public defender Jennifer Weiler said.
He has been incarcerated in South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, Cumberland County, since March because the Burlington County Jail in Mount Holly was not equipped to handle his extensive medical care.
Burlington County taxpayers have spent more than $340,000 for Teti’s medical care, including an extended hospital stay in February, during which he received palliative radiation treatments.
After Teti was diagnosed with terminal cancer in February, the prosecution and defense agreed to postpone the trial until April. At an April case management hearing, both sides and Covert acknowledged that Teti’s increasingly poor health made it highly unlikely he could endure a trial, but that Teti’s attorney would still need to file a motion to dismiss the case.
A May 4 medical report prepared by the New Jersey Department of Corrections' managing doctor, who examined Teti, stated that his weight had dropped to 104 pounds and that his condition will continue to “aggressively” decline.
Teti cannot stand or walk unassisted. Given his frailty and worsening health, it would be highly unlikely he could reoffend, Weiler said, quoting the medical report.
The state doctor estimated Teti’s life expectancy at no more than six months — three months more than doctors estimated in February.
Covert noted that given Teti’s medical prognosis, it would be “unconscionable” for his family to leave him alone if he were released. She also said that life expectancy estimates are not an exact science, but that the medical reports indicate Teti is unable to get around on his own.
Debra Loggia 
Covert ordered that Teti be released as soon as possible.
“The goal is it will happen quickly,” she said.
Before that happens, though, Loggia must provide proof that she has hospice arrangements and that any nurses responsible for Teti’s care understand the court-ordered conditions of his release.
After Friday's hearing, Loggia said she is relieved her uncle will die with family instead of prison guards. But her fight isn’t over.
She said she has filed complaints with the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct and the Office of the Attorney General alleging that the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office, Covert, and Superior Court Judge Thomas Kelly, who oversaw bail hearings in the case, intentionally attempted to delay releasing Teti despite evidence that he was too sick to undergo trial.
A spokesman for the committee in Trenton said complaints are not public unless they are found to have merit and forwarded to the New Jersey Supreme Court for review. This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching the AG’s office for comment.
"While I'm so grateful this ordeal is over, I am still troubled that my uncle spent three months in prison with no hope of a trial,” Loggia said after the hearing. “We really rely upon our judges to mitigate overreach by prosecutors, and in this case I do not believe that happened."