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'Is This A Sober Home Or A Drug Den?,' Compliance Group Denounces Abuses In Recovery Residences

Bernard Spragg. NZ
via Flickr/Creative Commons

As the addiction recovery industry boomed in South Florida over the past decade, so did the number of recovery residences - also known as sober homes.

Federal law prohibits mandatory registration of sober homes to protect the people staying there from discrimination. So there is no official record of how many there are here in South Florida.

There is an organization that certifies sober homes in the state: the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, or FARR. FARR certification is thorough and highly regarded in the industry, but it is voluntary.

WLRN’s Peter Haden recently sat down with the president of FARR, John Lehman, who estimates there could be as many as 3-thousand sober homes in the state.

WLRN:  South Florida has been a destination for addiction recovery going back three decades. What changed recently to allow so many bad actors into the space?

John Lehman: About seven years ago, a couple of individuals figured out how to make a lot of money on sober homes. And what they did is they figured out that there was a way to drug test individuals in the sober home and bill an insurance company for those drug tests.

And then it's gotten worse. We have individuals that came down from say New Jersey that had been enrolled in outpatient services for four and five years that are intended to be 90 day platforms.

In this opportunistic predator space those individuals are told, “Hey, I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is you need to pack your stuff and leave. Your insurance company isn't paying for you anymore. So you can't stay here. Best of luck to you.” And the resident says, “Well, what’s the good news?” “The good news is there is a way to reset your insurance benefits. All you have to do is go out and have a drug holiday. Just go out and get high and then go to detox. And as a result, you’ll go into detox you recording the fact that you reengaged in use [of drugs], we can pick you up when the detox dismisses you, and we can bring you back in at the higher level of care, and we can continue to provide free housing, transportation, room and board, and we’ll even throw in an iPhone 7. How’s that sound?” And that’s been going on.

Don’t you need some kind of medical credentials to become a treatment provider?

Sure! Well, you need to have a medical director on board.

And so…

Is there a doctor signing off on all this? Absolutely. And would one of the ways to crack down on this be to identify which doctors are farming out their license and their credentials to multiple intensive outpatient programs and ordering tests that are not necessary and not reviewing the results of those tests for all the residents every single time they come in? Yeah, that’d be one way to crack down on it.

What would you say to residents of neighborhoods who are opposed to new sober homes moving in?

The question is - is this in fact a sober home? And does it have a system in place to monitor and to encourage individuals who are living under that roof to develop the recovery management skills necessary to achieve resiliency? Now, if the answer to that question is yes -- then I want it in my neighborhood.

There have been studies done here in the United States, Australia, the U.K. and Canada. And all of them demonstrated exactly the same numbers: Individuals in recovery from addiction are twice as likely to be actively engaged in community service in their community than people that don't have an addiction in the first place. Twice as likely. So if you're in long term recovery, you're a valuable resource to this community. You're going to be on the PTA you're going to be involved in the Rotary Club and the business community through the Chamber of Commerce. And you're going to be looking to faith based organizations as well. That's one issue.

The second is:   Your neighbor or you yourself are going to have a family member that has an addiction problem and they're going to need to tap into resources in the community in order for them to establish and sustain their own recovery. You can't go anywhere in this country and actually get people to honestly and transparently and genuinely talk to you where they don't have a first cousin, a sister, a brother, a mother, a son, a father, a grandfather, a grandmother who has an addiction problem. I mean, it's just that widespread. So, given that fact, you certainly want the people in your community that have an addiction problem to be able to access the resources that they need in order to reverse the trajectory of their lives and to achieve a sustainable recovery.

If what you're calling your city commissioner about is:  there's these kids that are out there at 2 a.m. in the morning, and they're shooting dope, and they're having sex in the cars, and they're breaking into other people's cars -- those aren’t people in recovery. Those are active addicts! It’s not a sober home. It's a drug den! Call it that. And then, yeah! Let's all get together and get rid of that. That doesn't belong in a community it doesn't belong anywhere. If it’s a sober home, it’s the only house on the block where you can absolutely be certain that nobody’s using drugs or alcohol.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.