'Enough is enough': At least 5 have died in NL sober homes in 3 years

New London — Christopher Johns. Madisen Vail. Christopher Brunner. Anthony Johnson. Michael Berube.

They were different ages, different genders. They hailed from different towns, had different backgrounds.

On the outside, they seemed to share little in common.

Yet all five died in a sober house in the city of New London since 2014.

The most recent death, that of 52-year-old Berube of East Hartford, came Oct. 7 at 851 Bank St.

Police and public records show emergency personnel responded to the GCM Realty-owned home at 2:30 a.m. that day, when house manager Tammy McClennon called 911 to report someone had died.

According to the police report, responders found Berube in a living room chair on the second floor, unresponsive and not breathing.

Another resident of the home, Christopher Paparella, told police Berube had been watching football that night. When Paparella left for a couple of hours to run some errands and returned to find Berube in the same chair, he said, he figured Berube was sleeping.

It wasn’t until 2:30 a.m. that Paparella and another resident realized Berube wasn’t breathing.

A doctor pronounced Berube deceased 13 minutes later. An autopsy showed fentanyl and morphine were to blame.

To city Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein, Berube’s death, along with the at least four that preceded it, is both heartbreaking and shameful.

“My thoughts are with the families and loved ones who are impacted by these tragic deaths,” Milstein said. “But I’m also outraged. Enough is enough."

Milstein has been pushing for more oversight of sober houses for over a year. While some of the city’s roughly 30 homes are regulated, such as those operated by the Southeastern Council on Alcohol and Dependence, a vast majority are not.

“Anybody can open a sober home,” Milstein said. “You can throw some mattresses on the floor and call it a sober house.”

In many cases, officials only learn of a sober home’s existence when they respond for an overdose call or for a violation of building, fire or public health codes.

That’s in part why Milstein helped start New London’s voluntary certification program for sober houses, the first of its kind in the state. To get certified, homeowners must prove their property is sanitary, safe and up to code. Residents must have access to support services and not be overcharged. Homes additionally are required to have the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone on hand.

In exchange for meeting those requirements, homes will land on a referral list, hypothetically making prospective residents more likely to seek them out.

So far, two property owners with five sober homes between them have come forward, Milstein said. One of them may complete certification as early as next week.

“When someone in recovery enters a sober house, they’re under the assumption that they’re entering a safe living environment to recover from a grueling addiction,” she said. “This is a simple way to bring the houses up to the standard (those in recovery) deserve.”

Milstein additionally has pushed for legislation at the state level. This year, House Bill No. 5471 passed the House but stalled in the Senate. That legislation would have made it so homes that failed to register with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services couldn’t advertise themselves as sober living homes.

With a new legislative session fast approaching, Milstein plans to renew the fight for statewide action. She hopes voluntary certification programs, if not adopted across the state, will at least be employed in more Connecticut municipalities in the near future. She wants treatment providers to circulate lists that only include certified sober homes. And she would like lawmakers to make it so government money, such as housing assistance for veterans, can only be put toward certified homes.

“What I want to do is create a culture of quality,” Milstein said. “That’s a priority for us: That we don’t tolerate anything less than a safe, clean, healing environment for not only the folks in recovery, but also the neighbors.”

l.boyle@theday.com

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments