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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Wednesday, June 21, 2017
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.
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.
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.