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Tighter Regulation Sought for ‘Sober Living’ Homes for Recovering Addicts

Involuntary commitment in some cases also sought by advocates who note that addiction qualifies as mental illness

sober living (Alba Herrera, Raj Mukherji and Peggy Farah)
Alba Herrera, state Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) and Peggy Farah during testimony about proposed tougher regulations for so-called sober living homes.

To Alba Herrera, the overdose death of her son Nick Rohdes never should have happened.

In February, the 24-year-old Rohdes was evicted from a so-called sober living home that he was staying in in Lambertville after relapsing in his drug use, Herrera said. Sober living facilities are intended to provide a safe, transitional environment for residents who are in recovery, but don’t offer the full set of services available at drug rehabilitation facilities.

After being evicted, Rohdes called his mother and asked if he could stay with her, but didn’t tell her that he had been evicted or that he had relapsed. She took him in, and that night he overdosed from heroin and died.

After finding her son the next day, she went to the sober living facility.

“I asked them, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ And they said your son was a grown man and he made his own decisions, and I was flabbergasted. I was, like, ‘Seriously? He made his own decision?’ ” said Herrera, a former Colts Neck resident who now lives in Levittown, Pa. “Someone suffering from addiction does not make decisions; the addiction makes the decision for them. And I said, ‘Would you have done this if he was suffering from diabetes and he went into diabetic shock?’ And he had no answer for me.”

She’s now working with state legislators to enact a pair of bills designed to prevent overdoses by increasing regulation of sober living and halfway houses and by making it easier for those with addictions to be involuntarily committed to psychiatric care. For example, the regulations would require that next of kin be contacted if people are evicted from such facilities, unless the person isn’t incapacitated and requests that family not be contacted.

The regulation bill, A-3228, has drawn opposition from organizations that operate sober living facilities, They say the bill would create regulatory burdens that could put some facilities out of business. In addition, mental-health advocates worry that the involuntary commitment bill may be too sweeping.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), the bills’ first primary sponsor, said the involuntary commitment bill, A-3227, would treat addictions the same way other mental illnesses are treated in determining involuntary commitments. He noted that addiction is recognized as a mental disorder by psychiatrists.

Involuntary commitments can occur when people are determined to be a danger to themselves or others.

“I think it’s time that we as a society, as well as a legislative body, stopped stigmatizing addiction and treated it like the illness and the disease that it is, and we wanted to make sure that our parents and families in the community are empowered to help their loved ones who are suffering from addiction,” Mukherji said.

Randy Thompson of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies said the involuntary commitment bill should be weighed carefully, adding that it raises issues about patients’ rights as well as the capacity of providers to serve residents of the halfway houses and sober living facilities.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) noted some descriptions of sober living homes as “rogue rehabs” that are in need of closer regulation.

“Anyone can open one up, and no one even knows they’re in the neighborhood,” she said.

Peggy Farah of Jersey City said her son Benjamin, who died from an overdose death at 24, could have been helped if his family had been able to involuntarily commit him.

“These bills can help others and that’s what my husband and I are committed to doing -- helping other families not go through what Alba (Herrera) and myself and other families have gone through,” she said.

The regulation bill has drawn opposition from sober home facility operators.

Jennifer Hansen, president of the Hansen Foundation, a sober living facility operator, said the facilities offer a cost-effective way to treat addiction.

“While well-intended, additional government oversight can have the effect of impeding the recovery mission,” said Hansen, who said she is a recovering addict herself.

Hansen noted that the bill would apply existing state regulations that currently apply to larger, full-service rehabilitation facilities. She said that if the sober living homes needed to cover costs resulting from those regulations – such as installing sprinklers – they could close.

She also questioned whether the state has enough inpatient beds to assist those affected by involuntary commitment.

“I just want to hear where the beds are going to come from,” she said, adding that the only way residents can currently get immediate inpatient treatment is if they are suicidal.

As an alternative to the bill, Hansen said she would like to see facilities in the state adopt National Association of Recovery Residences’ requirements for facilities similar to the sober living homes.

Similar concerns were raised by Edward Martone of the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, who said the state shouldn’t try to apply existing regulations to sober living homes, but should consider them as a separate category of provider.

Mukherji said he plans to meet further with various stakeholders and consider amending the regulation bill to clarify how sober living facilities are defined, based on the level of services offered.

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