New Jersey

I-Team: Unregulated Sober Homes Fuel Uptick in Overdose Deaths, Some Experts Say

What to Know

  • Overdose deaths in NY state are up 68 percent in New York from 2011 to 2015; they're also up in NJ and in Connecticut
  • Some experts unregulated sober living homes, where addicts go after rehab to stay sober, are fueling the problem
  • “It’s a free for all,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, of the Family and Children's Association

Drug overdose deaths have jumped 68 percent in New York state in the past five years, according to federal data, and drug addiction experts tell the I-Team they think lack of regulation around sober living homes is driving the problem. 

A sober home is a private residence for recovering drug addicts. Cassie and James McWilliam had no idea what sober living was when they sent their son Hank to live in one of the homes after a stint in rehab for drug addiction, but counselors recommended his family take that course of action.

“They said, 'We guarantee if he goes back to your house, back to your high school, the same triggers, the same friends,'” said Hank's father James McWilliam, who is a physician. “He is going to relapse and he’ll relapse quickly.” 

Hank McWilliam, a Rye High School senior, was just 18 years old when he went to live in a sober home in 2015. But six weeks after he moved in, he left in an ambulance -– suffering from an overdose. Days later, just before Christmas, he was dead. 

"It’s a free for all,” Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association, said of sober living. “When we think about overdose fatalities, which are higher than they've ever been statewide, this is part of the problem, folks are leaving treatment and going into patently unsafe environments." 

“We are in the height of a drug crisis,” Reynolds added. “It’s affecting the entire tri-state area. We have tens of thousands of young people who can’t return home for one reason or another." 

Federal data reviewed by the I-Team found Hank McWilliam was one of more than 56,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide in 2015 –- an increase of 183 percent from 1999. Locally, from 2011 to 2015, overdose deaths have jumped 68 percent in New York, more than 62 percent in New Jersey and 116 percent in Connecticut, according to the I-Team's review. 

In all three states, sober homes aren't regulated if they aren't providing medical care, as long as local housing codes are followed. Anyone can operate a sober home, collecting rent -– including government housing assistance -– from people seeking a place for recovery. Sober home operators do not need a special license, don’t need medical expertise or have to know CPR. 

No one knows how many exist in the tri-state area. It’s believed there are at least 100 in Suffolk County. 

"Often times we respond to these homes for overdoses, for disturbances, for fights,” said Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini. 

Sini says the surge in calls to sober homes comes as the drug problem overall is getting more dire. Data reviewed by the I-Team shows law enforcement is battling a shifting opioid problem. Suffolk County leads the state in overdose deaths with 311 in 2016. But for the first time, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, killed more people than heroin last year. 

"There's no question this is an issue and there’s no question this needs to be addressed,” Sini said. 

Sini’s officers see it all in troubled sober homes. For example, police have responded 30 times since 2015 to Solution House in Blue Point. Some of the calls were for “aided cases,” which can be overdoses.

Dave Sardello, owner of Solution House, said as far as he knows, the home has seen only one overdose. 

“We revived her with Narcan because we have certified Narcan people here,” Sardello said.

Although Sardello says he's trained his staff to use Narcan, there is nothing in the law that requires him to do so. While police have responded to Sardello’s home so many times, he says he tries to maintain very strict rules. 

"Our ultimate goal here is that people get sober," Sardello said. 

He gave the I-Team a quick tour of the first level of the house. The house looked like it needed work, which Sardello didn't argue, but he said there’s very little money to do renovations. 

"You know what they pay? They want me to house them, feed them and clothe them?" Sardello said. 

State housing assistance pays Sardello up to nearly $500 a month for qualified residents. Suffolk County legislator Kate Browning believes that state assistance should trigger automatic regulation of sober homes. 

"They’re overcrowded, the drugs are readily available, and we wind up with overdoses and deaths,” Browning said. 

Attempts to regulate homes in New York have stalled in the legislature, but Connecticut is moving closer with a proposed bill to regulate sober homes.

Meanwhile, families like the McWilliams can only hope other addicts fare better in sober living than the loved ones they lost.  

"He would have been safer in this house than he was at sober living," said Hank McWilliam's mother, Cassie. "Nobody in this house has drugs.”

Contact Us