By Samantha Bambino
“You will have more deaths on your hands, it’s not that simple,” grieving mother Jessica Scheiber Blackburn said at an April 10 House Democratic Policy Committee hearing at Ben Franklin Middle School in Bristol Township.
State Rep. Tina Davis requested the hearing to collect testimony on how local communities are handling recovery residences and to discuss additional safeguards she believes would protect the recovery system, all to gain support for her H.B. 355, which would establish certification for recovery residences.
“We need to weed out facilities that are not helping those in recovery,” Davis said.
According to the Bristol Township Police Department, there were 17 overdoses in 2016 in the township’s recovery houses, two fatalities and no one saved by naloxone, a prescriptive antidote that can treat narcotic overdoses in emergency situations.
Davis’ legislation would create the Certified Recovery Residence Act, requiring recovery homes to implement training and treatment protocols regarding the administration of Narcan — one of the brand names of naloxone — to counteract drug overdoses. Although the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs establishes requirements for houses funded with DDAP dollars, Davis thinks more safeguards need to be enacted to protect the recovery system and community.
Blackburn agrees. On Nov. 2, 2015, her daughter, Victoria, was found brain dead on the floor of the recovery house where she was living. Officials at the house and police knew of her death at about 9 p.m., but Victoria’s family was not informed until 1:30 a.m., according to her mother.
“People are not educated in the behavior and recovery of addicts,” Blackburn said during the first panel of the hearing, consisting of parents whose children died in recovery houses.
She explained how addicts are smart and know how to get around the system. Victoria lived in a cramped room with four other women in bunk beds. They took turns staying clean, and bought and sold the sober person’s urine to pass drug tests. Blackburn wasn’t even aware the house was co-ed until she learned her daughter was dating a male resident. According to Blackburn, she never received a call from the police or an incident report.
Panelist Angelina Lofaro-Mundy experienced the same devastating loss of her daughter, Katelynne Alyssa Sheaf, on June 2, 2015, at her recovery house, a place she had been to before and that her mother knew well. She was supposed to stay there for about a week until she could get into another program and back on track, for the sake of herself and her two sons, Gabriel and Elijah.
Like Blackburn, Lofaro-Mundy was unable to receive information on her daughter’s exact time of death, because her body laid there for hours.
“A recovery house is a tool for recovering addicts. It is supposed to provide structure and assistance to the addict seeking to rebuild their life. It is supposed to be their last stop before again living free of their demons and having a fruitful life. Not the last stop of their life,” Lofaro-Mundy said.
The second panel was a group of directors of successful recovery houses, including Bryan Kennedy, owner of Independence Lodge Sober Living. Kennedy understands firsthand the struggles of his residents. He recently marked his seventh year sober. He initially went to treatment to appease his parents. However, once he arrived at the recovery house, he learned how to truly get sober and be accountable for small tasks such as making his bed.
Kennedy explained the zoning regulations his house as well as others throughout Bucks County had to go through. The biggest struggle is word of mouth among addicts about “strict houses,” where they are required to do chores, versus “rogue houses,” which is where Blackburn and Mundy’s daughters found themselves, he said.
“The individual has to want to be sober,” Kennedy said of the decision to follow the standards of a strict house.
Emilie House owner Micki Kaisinger also attested to the ability of recovery houses to help residents succeed. At her house, there are rules and guidelines, and if someone expects to live there, they must abide by them. Kaisinger also understands the mindset of addiction.
“Today, the chance of relapse can be deadly. So I, and the rest of my family who help out at Emilie House, are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” she said.
The final group of testifiers included Tom Tosti, a Middletown Township supervisor and director of AFSCME District Council 88, and Bristol Township Councilman Howard Allen.
Tosti lost a brother to addiction, and said recovery houses are a “free-for-all” without structure. After he was sworn into office in January 2016, he set to work on improving the township’s recovery homes. Little did he know, any amendments and regulations he planned to pass would not affect any of the existing homes, only new ones.
“There is only so much we can do as local elected officials,” he said. “What we are looking for from our state legislature is assistance in helping our communities. H.B. 355, the Certified Recovery Residence Act, is a step in that direction.”
In only his first term, Allen is already seeing a high concentration of “rogue houses.” Agreeing with Tosti, he pleaded with Davis for her legal backing to provide safety for residents, though she and the rest of the House Democratic Policy Committee have their work cut out for them as the minority party.
“I’m glad parents, local officials and recovery houses were represented at today’s Policy Committee hearing. We collected great information to help communities managing recovery residences and more detail about how my bill can help strengthen the recovery system,” Davis said. ••