By Jane Smith
With $275,000 in hand from the Florida Legislature, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg led the first meetings of the Sober Homes Task Force in mid-July at the West Palm Beach police station’s community room.
His chief assistant, Al Johnson, had spent the past three months assembling the group that includes elected officials, industry workers and advocates, prosecutors, fire-rescue workers and town attorneys.
At the second session, held two days later, nearly half had connections to South County coastal cities. At this meeting Aronberg gave each task force member a business card with a toll-free hotline (844-324-5463) for the public to report questionable business practices of recovery industry providers.
The task force goal is finding ways to clean up the sober home industry by the end of the year. It will focus on four areas: regulation, clarifying laws, policies and marketing plans.
“Lives are at risk,” Johnson said. “This is not about shutting down sober homes or recovery residences. But it’s about protecting the vulnerable patients.”
He rattled off overdose data for Delray Beach. For all of 2015, the city had 195 heroin overdoses compared with the first six months of this year, when the city recorded 242 overdoses from heroin.
Justin Chapman, a prosecutor with the Southwest Florida State Attorney’s Office, was hired to run the task force. He talked about stopping rogue treatment centers from giving kickbacks to sober homes to get patients on the centers’ treatment plan and run up insurance bills.
Ted Padich, formerly with the state Division of Insurance, is another new hire. Both also will be involved with the law enforcement group of the task force.
Rogue providers will find the loopholes, said Suzanne Spencer, executive director of the Delray Beach Drug Task Force. She encouraged strong enforcement of the rules.
Former Delray Beach City Commissioner Adam Frankel said he was from the “rehab capital of the world where not a day goes by when you don’t see a kid lugging a suitcase down the street,” indicating the person was just evicted from a sober home. He wants to see a no-nonsense approach to clean up the recovery industry.
Boca Raton City Councilman Scott Singer simply asked for help maintaining the quality of life in his city’s communities.
Most agreed that stronger regulations are needed for treatment centers because the Department of Children and Families does not have the money to do it adequately. The task force will look at whether the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration is more suited to do the job because it licenses health care facilities.
Sober homes, though, can’t be regulated because of federal housing and disability laws. Recovering drug and alcohol users who live together while maintaining sobriety are considered a family and a protected class.
The voluntary certification provided by the Florida Association of Recovery Residences has fallen behind, even though providers pay a fee to be certified. The certification just became mandatory July 1 for state-licensed treatment centers that send their patients to sober homes.
Treatment centers can bypass the law by opening their own recovery residences or patients can choose on their own to live in a noncertified place, said a DCF spokeswoman.
Some attendees, including Andrew Burki who heads the Life of Purpose Treatment at Florida Atlantic University, said third-party brokers are a major problem. He thinks the task force needs to define “brokering” so that the law is better enforced.
“We can’t prosecute our way out of a systematic problem,” Johnson said. “Once the lights go out, the roaches come back out.”
George Jahn, who runs Sober Living in Delray Beach, said brokering was a criminal enterprise. “People doing it are in it for the money, not the heart,” he said.
A county fire-rescue employee, Matt Willhite, suggested that standards need to be written for who can run a sober home, its capacity and the type of care given.
Johnson said he’d like “to stop the commerce between recovery residences and marketing providers, the flop houses who give heroin to vulnerable addicts to get them back into rehab.”
The task force has a schedule that calls for two meetings each month through June. The public meetings are held at the West Palm Beach police station. The law enforcement group meetings are closed to the public.
By Jane Smith