Suffolk working on cleaning up sober homes

Rick Brand

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For nearly a decade, Suffolk has tried to rein in unregulated sober homes through legislation that later was thrown out in court.

County officials have also appealed to the state Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse and have gotten stony silence.

But now, the county legislature may be finally on the verge of implementing a backdoor way to start cleaning up these homes, privately run residences for recovering addicts.

Critics say many sober homes are run by unscrupulous operators who permit drug and alcohol use and are where residents can relapse into addiction.

The plan, put forward by Legis. Kate M. Browning (WF-Shirley) last year and now being put into place by the Department of Social Services, has solicited proposals from nonprofit groups for sober homes that would be well-supervised with tough rules and counseling services.

Browning's initiative does not impose regulations on all sober houses, which may number up to 600 countywide, but offers a financial carrot of a higher reimbursement -- $750 monthly rent rather than $467 -- to those that meet the county's standards.

Edward Hernandez, deputy social services commissioner, said five nonprofits -- some in partnership with professional counseling services -- responded in April and four qualified. Contract negotiations are under way and the county hopes to finalize them before summer is out.

At the same time, Browning has another legislative proposal to create a 180-member sober house oversight board to make sure the new facilities operate as advertised. That measure was delayed last week because Health Commissioner James Tomarken wants to meet with social services officials to see what role his agency will have to play in creating and enforcing standards.

The initiative comes after a federal judge last year struck down a 2003 law that limited sober homes to six residents, required 24-hour supervision and imposed inspections and a site selection process. Justice Robert Briglio ruled Suffolk showed "woefully insufficient evidence" the law was justified on public safety grounds. In 2006, Albany lawmakers passed a bill directing state alcohol officials to set up a pilot regulation project in Suffolk, but then-Gov. George Pataki vetoed it. Since then, the agency has done nothing.

"Frankly none of this would be necessary if New York's Office of Alcohol and Substance abuse would do their job," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. He said the state ignores the shelter needs of recovering alcoholics and addicts immediately after treatment, often wasting the taxpayers' investment.

Kathy Liguori, vice chairwoman of the legislature's Welfare to Work Committee, studied the problem a year ago and made recommendations to set up a model program. She said Browning's plan is the right approach. "We have record numbers going into treatment," she said, adding that relapse rates are as high as 80 percent because there are few safe and supervised places.

"We have a major crisis going on," said Browning, and well-run homes are needed because families can't handle the stresses of recovery. "Too many of our children need help and sometimes they need a place to go because they can't go home," she said.

But even backers concede the new initiative is limited in scope because it does not regulate all of the county's sober homes. "If you can't regulate, you have to support the good guys," said Reynolds. "But we still have to find a way to push the bad guys out."

However, he said the initiative may prod those in the middle to improve services and in the long run encourage "bad operators to find other businesses."

While the new initiative may start small, Hernandez said once it takes effect this fall, the improved reimbursements may encourage others to follow. "Once we have it down pat," he said, "we'll likely expand the pool . . . and it will be something we can build on."