City hoping to get a handle on unregulated sober houses
New London — The vegetable garden inside the 6-foot fence that surrounds the side yard at 62/64 Coit St. is thriving under the care of the 11 women living at the halfway house during their early recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
During a tour of the home last week, Susan, who has struggled with a crack cocaine addiction for the past three decades, enthusiastically described the varieties of lettuce, squash, peppers and other produce she and her housemates have planted and nurtured throughout this dry growing season.
"It's part of my therapy," said Susan, who did not use her last name in the tradition of anonymity for recovering addicts. "You can't garden and use (drugs), that's for sure."
The halfway house, owned and operated by the Southeastern Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, is one of more than 30 residences in the city where recovering addicts live together while working on their sobriety.
Funded by the state, the SCADD house is regulated by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Department of Public Health.
Many of the other sober houses in the city are privately owned and unregulated, according to city officials, and the only way officials know what they are is if the police and fire departments are called there for a report of an intoxicated person, overdose or other issue.
Over the years, several overdose deaths have occurred in sober homes.
Jeanne Milstein, the city's director of human services, formed a working group on so-called recovery residences earlier this year and this week sent a letter inviting the sober house owners to attend an Aug. 9 information session on voluntary training and certification by the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery.
Members of the working group include police, fire and Ledge Light Health District officials, along with others concerned about addicts' well-being.
"We will be the first community in the State of Connecticut to implement a certification training program for the residences," Milstein said. "We know sober houses are a critical part for some people's recovery. We want them to be of the highest quality."
Legislative attempts to regulate sober houses have failed over the years, Milstein said, so the working group decided to offer the "carrot" approach: Those who obtain the certification will be included on a referral list.
She said the owner of at least three homes in the city already has contacted CCAR and is engaged in the certification process.
On Jan. 3, 21-year-old Madisen Vail of Stonington, who had struggled with addiction, injected a lethal dose of heroin while visiting a boyfriend at a privately owned men's sober home on Prest Street, according to a police report.
She died three weeks later at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Over the past several months, recovering addicts who have stayed at sober homes in the city have told The Day that they were able to obtain and use drugs in the homes or that the environment was not conducive to staying sober.
Andrew Henault, a recovering heroin addict, said he left a sober house owned by Stonington Institute last week, in part because the other residents were regularly going out drinking after staff members left and bringing drugs into the home.
"I could get past the alcohol," said Henault, who has since moved into a sober home in Norwich. "I don't drink it. But when people started coming in with heroin ..."
The Day contacted officials at Stonington Institute this week and requested a tour of one of their New London homes. The company has not yet responded.
New London Police Capt. Larry J. Keating, part of the working group, said he and Fire Marshal Vernon Skau produced a list of known sober homes, in part based on calls for service, but that the list may not be complete.
"Aside from the SCADD-operated properties, that are well managed and staffed, the other houses cause concerns for us in the fact that an emergency contact for house 'managers' is not always available, no landlord/building owner information (is) readily available," Keating said in a note to Milstein.
He added that there are no lists of on-call personnel in the event officials need to contact them when problems arise, and there is a "gray area" when it comes to ejection and eviction policies in which police often are asked to get involved.
SCADD, which is state funded, operates two homes for women in New London and has homes for men in Norwich.
The agency does not charge rent to the residents of its recovery homes, but privately owned sober homes charge as much as $140 a week.
At the SCADD facilities, a house manager is on duty 24 hours. The residents are Breathalyzed and tested for drugs at least twice a week, are required to attend group meetings in the home, go to five 12-step meetings a week and work with an outside therapist.
The residents have to work or actively seek employment and find a sponsor during their three- to six-month stay.
Those who test positive for drugs are ejected from the home and referred to a detox facility, according to Jack Malone, SCADD's executive director.
Malone said the SCADD homes regularly are inspected by the state and that the New London building inspector and fire marshal always are welcome.
Privately owned sober homes are often "all about profit," he said.
"People think, 'I can make my house available to all these people in recovery and I can make a lot of money,'" he said. "There's not a lot of money to be made."
Though Malone considers SCADD recovery homes the model to be emulated, the agency did have an overdose death in one of its homes in Norwich.
Andrew E. Bartholemew, 26, of Amston died on March 8. He had been living at the home after undergoing rehabilitation at Lebanon Pines, SCADD's residential rehabiliation facility.
"It shook us to the core, but it's the reality of the business," Malone said.
He said Bartholemew had been out smoking cigarettes with other residents about an hour before he was found unresponsive.
The Department of Public Health has asked SCADD whether its staff pats down residents when they return to the home. Malone said the house managers are not trained to do that.