New alliance aims for greater oversight of sober homes

As legislation addressing the quality of sober homes sits on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, nonprofit Community Speaks Out has inked a deal that will make it a major player should the bill become law.

The nonprofit, which helps people get into substance abuse treatment and raises awareness about opioid addiction, last month became affiliated with the Connecticut Alliance of Recovery Residences, or CTARR.

Both nonprofits are qualified to inspect and certify sober homes when operators reach out. Community Speaks Out has been working in the greater New London area, while CTARR has certified about 30 homes across the state.

Certification can help a person struggling with substance abuse find a good sober home rather than a questionable one.

Most towns’ zoning rules don’t require inspection or registration to open a sober home, and because the homes don’t provide treatment, they aren’t regulated by the state.

That lack of oversight sometimes leads to squalid living conditions and operators who don’t understand the basics of being a landlord.

“There’s such a need for this in Connecticut as well as the rest of the country,” said CTARR President Dan Smith, who spearheaded the partnership between his group and Community Speaks Out.

“Realistically, this inspection process will give loved ones, family members and people seeking safe places to call home a resource to find places that have been practicing best practices and being ethical,” he said. “People always hear the horror stories but never hear the good stories.”

Operators certified by CTARR must adhere to a lengthy code of ethics, which includes, among other things, keeping homes alcohol- and drug-free, protecting the privacy and rights of residents, applying rules and testing for drugs in a consistent way and being transparent about finances.

CTARR is in the final stages of becoming the official Connecticut affiliate of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, or NARR, which also has rigorous standards. Via a memorandum of understanding approved May 26, Community Speaks Out also would fall under that umbrella and would continue to handle southeastern Connecticut.

New London alone has about 35 sober homes, some of which are discovered only after first responders are called for an overdose. The city also has a voluntary certification program and is considering an ordinance that would allow for inspection of the homes.

Lisa Cote Johns, a cofounder of Community Speaks Out, got involved after her 33-year-old son, Christopher, died in a sober home in 2014.

“One of my passions is bed checks,” Johns said, alluding to the certification requirement that a person shouldn’t be left alone for too long in a sober home. “My son was dead for almost 16 hours before anyone found him. If (somebody is) overdosing and you have that check, you’re going to be able to save somebody.”

The partnership, in motion before House Bill No. 5149 passed the Connecticut General Assembly, makes CTARR and Community Speaks Out the obvious go-to agencies for certification, which is appealing under the legislation.

The bill makes it so operators who voluntarily certify their homes can be listed on the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ website. Per the bill, only certification from NARR or another DMHAS-approved organization will qualify a home.

Operators also must stock at least two doses of an opioid overdose-reversal drug such as naloxone in their homes, train residents on how to use it and tell DMHAS each week how many beds they have available.

The bill further requires operators to state on their websites that sober homes are voluntary living situations that don’t provide substance use disorder treatment. Under the bill, those who mislead tenants can be charged with engaging in unfair trade practices.

The hope is that people will be more likely to choose homes that are on the DMHAS list, which could make those who run questionable sober houses less likely to succeed.

l.boyle@theday.com

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