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|
“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)|
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.”