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New London sober house owners, agencies get acquainted with certification process

New London — The last thing Ken Aligata wants is a phone call from a mother saying her son died of a drug overdose within hours of being released from a substance abuse treatment program to a sober house.

Having a safe, sober environment is crucial for recovering addicts, according to Aligata, program manager for recovery housing at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, CCAR, and a recovering alcoholic/drug addict with 28 years of sobriety.

Unfortunately, Aligata said, he has received phone calls all too often from grieving parents whose children have died of overdoses while staying at homes that are supposed to be dedicated to sober living.

With no state or federal oversight and millions of privately owned sober houses across the country, the industry is often referred to as "the Wild West," he said.

Aligata met Tuesday morning at Opportunities Industrialization Center, 106 Truman St., with a handful of city sober house owners and about 20 representatives of the city and groups that work with addicts.

New London, which has more than 30 sober houses within city limits, is the first community in Connecticut to implement a voluntary certification training program for recovery residences, according to Jeanne Milstein, the city's director of human services.

"We see our role as supporting the clients we serve, but also the property owners," Milstein said.

CCAR is a state affiliate of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, which in 2011 established a national standard for four levels of recovery homes — from so-called Oxford homes, which are run by residents, to treatment facilities with medical staff on call.

Those who obtain voluntary certification will be included on referral lists, have access to training programs and be part of a national coalition of recovery house owners.

CCAR also is looking to re-open a recovery community center in the city, having had one here that closed in 2011 when a federal grant expired.

The agency still has centers in Willimantic, Bridgeport and Hartford, and the facilities serve as "sanctuaries" for those in recovery, opening for set hours and training, coaching, support group meetings and social events, according to Deb Dettor, CCAR managing director.

A family that owns five sober houses New London, known as the "Healthy Lifestyles" homes, has already started the CCAR certification process, which includes an upcoming inspection.

"I just thought it would be good to come out of hiding, and if CCAR comes to the City of New London, it would be great for us," said Janice Gerry, one of the owners.

In recent years, several people have died in sober houses here and in other cities, many of them relapsing on heroin after undergoing detoxification and inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation treatment.

Locally, city officials have cited sober homes for building code violations and police have been called to sober houses for reports of drug activity and intoxicated residents.

Most of the sober houses in Connecticut would be certified as "Level 2" homes under the national standard, according to Aligata. 

He said they must be single-sex and have a live-in manager who has been in recovery for at least a year, preferably two or three years. Residents must sign a contract upon entering the home in which they agree to remain sober, follow house rules and take part in 12-step program or faith-based recovery meetings.

The newest requirement, resulting from the dramatic rise in prescription pill and heroin addiction use in recent years, is that the houses must have the opiate antidote Narcan on hand, Aligata said.

He fielded a few questions about the standards and several more queries about how to remove residents from sober houses if they relapse, fail to pay rent or disobey house rules.

Sober house owner Barbara Parzych said that it took her six months to evict one man and that she resorted to having the house condemned in order to make him leave. She owns a multi-family home at 233 Crystal Ave., according to public records.

Aligata said those who relapse usually will leave on their own, because it is uncomfortable for them to be using drugs and alcohol in a home where the other residents are focused on sobriety.

He said house managers could talk to them about getting into treatment and offer to drive them to a local shelter, adding that he had heard of one instance where a person who had relapsed was offered two hundred-dollar bills if he left and "was gone in about two minutes." 

"Your last-ditch effort is the eviction process," Aligata said.

Judith DiCine, a senior housing prosecutor with the Office of the Chief State's Attorney, said that in general, removal of sober house residents has to be done under eviction law, but sober houses may qualify for an exemption where a judge will declare that they can have a person removed without going through the lengthy eviction process.

Then local police can "assist them off," she said.

k.florin@theday.com

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