PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. – In Yorktown exists a home where adults recovering from drug and alcohol addictions live together with a common goal of maintaining sobriety before returning to their normal lives, ideally better equipped to navigate the many pitfalls that exist outside the walls of rehab centers.
Because this home is being privately run without town oversight, little is known of its rules and regulations or how many people live on the property. A co-owner of the home previously declined to speak with Yorktown News and the town’s building inspector was recently denied entrance, according to Councilwoman Alice Roker.
This is not unique to Yorktown. Because sober homes, as they are called, provide no medical or psychiatric care, they remain almost entirely unregulated on the federal, state and local levels. Organizations or private entities that provide housing and oversight to recovering addicts need no qualifications to do so.
Until now, Justin Gurland and Zac Clark, who operate Release Recovery in Yorktown, have remained silent about their facility on Underhill Avenue. Last week, however, they appeared at Pace University, testifying before the New York State Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, where they joined state legislators in calling for regulation of sober homes. The fact-finding hearing was organized by Sen. Terrence Murphy.
“As a term, sober living has been broadly used,” Gurland said, reading from a statement. “The lack of proper definition and accompanying regulation has allowed many actors to enter this field of work, too often regrettably with negative consequences.”
In December 2015, for example, Hank McWilliam, an 18-year-old Rye High School senior, overdosed on anxiety medication while under the care of Constellations Recovery, a former sober home that operated out of the same Underhill Avenue residence. McWilliam was declared brain dead and later died at a hospital.
McWilliam entered the care of Constellations Recovery on Nov. 2, 2015, at a rate of $8,500 a month. Prior to that, he spent two months in an inpatient drug treatment center in Connecticut, where he was treated for his addiction to Xanax.
His parents, Cassie and Jim McWilliam, recently sued the owners of Constellations Recovery, alleging that their negligence caused his overdose death. They both testified at the Senate task force hearing on Feb. 15.
“Despite the critical nature of their purported mission, these facilities are subject to absolutely no governance on a local, state or national level,” Jim McWilliam said. “As such, there appears to be no requirement that these for-profit sober living facilities fulfill any obligation regarding best practices to serve and facilitate the recovery of their vulnerable clients.”
Because these facilities lack governmental oversight, he said, his son’s death was not properly investigated and the events surrounding it remain a “mystery.”
“Based upon existing laws, sober facility personnel have no obligation to recognize a victim of overdose or to provide assistance for such a victim, even CPR,” Jim McWilliam said. “There’s no requirement. They can stand there and look. They have no obligation to do anything.”
Cassie McWilliam had stronger words about the sober living industry.
“This whole system, for lack of a better word, is garbage,” Cassie McWilliam said. “The fact that we have to sit here and actually ask—no, beg—for somebody to regulate these places is insane.”
Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who also testified at the Senate hearing, lives directly next door to the McWilliam family in Rye. Beyond certain land-use authority, he said, there is nothing the county can do to regulate sober homes. He said he supports the task force in its efforts.
“In our county, we have 19 towns, six cities and 20 villages,” Latimer said. “So, it’s a bit of a crazy pattern of who regulates land-use in which ways.”
John Haley, chief executive officer of the Seafield Center on Long Island, which offers inpatient and outpatient services, said he would also like to see governmental standards and procedures to weed out the “bad actors” and “slum lords” who see sober living as a money-making venture. However, Haley was skeptical that the state can put forth substantive regulation because the Supreme Court of the United States has already ruled that sober homes are single-family residences and not subject to regulation (City of Edmonds v. Oxford House Inc. and Jeffrey O. v. City of Boca Raton).
“I wish it were different, because I wish there was regulation,” Haley said. “For the county to legislate it, for the state to legislate it, has become a terribly difficult thing, because you’re fighting the federal government.”
Despite the negative connotation that comes with sober living, Haley said, it is a necessary step in the rehabilitation process. He said a typical stay at his inpatient rehab facility lasts 19 days.
“Nobody is getting sober and recovering in 19 days,” Haley said. “The public needs to get a better understanding of that.”
Sober living residences do not provide any on-site medical or psychiatric treatment and are intended to help people with addictions transition back into society following a stay in rehabilitation. Residents are usually referred to the facilities by health care professionals and are admitted on a voluntary basis.
Stephanie Marquesano, an Ardsley resident, said unqualified sober home staff are also responsible for her son’s death. In 2013, 19-year-old Harris Marquesano was removed from a sober home in Delray Beach, Fla., after he consumed illegal pills brought into the house by another resident. The staff set him up in a local hotel and gave him an ultimatum: Get clean or get out. Living by himself in a Florida hotel, the teenager overdosed and died, Stephanie Marquesano said.
State Sen. Fred Akshar, a member of the task force, apologized to the McWilliams and Marquesano on behalf of New York State.
“Your sons did not die in vain,” Akshar said.
The senator said there are several New York State agencies that, with proper funding, could and should be regulating sober homes: Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, Department of Health, and the Office of Mental Health.
“As I educate myself on this particular issue, I say to myself, ‘Why in God’s name is somebody not regulating this?’ ” Akshar said.
Gurland and Clark said a successful sober home should: provide a dedicated case manager for each resident; ensure clinical support; require frequent and random drug and alcohol testing; require daily room searches; require staff be rigorously trained and skilled in first aid; provide daily structure, such as group meetings and activities; have a clear policy on medication; and track the progress of its residents using clear metrics.
“The reintegration back into society is really what the purpose of a sober home is,” Clark said.
Yorktown resident Pia Riverso, an attorney whose house neighbors Release Recovery, said without state regulations, municipal governments are “powerless” to control them.
Four-and-a-half years ago, Release Recovery’s predecessor, Constellations Recovery, applied for a special-use permit as a convalescent home. After years of hearings, which included multiple lawsuits, Riverso and other community members were unsuccessful in their attempt to prevent the Town Board from awarding the permit. The only recourse a municipal government has, Riverso said, is through zoning, but that would be challenged by a federal lawsuit.
Riverso said the community’s worst fears came true when, in the span of 13 months, there was a sexual assault allegation against one of the staff members and the overdose death of Hank McWilliam. The sexual assault allegation was ruled inconclusive by the Yorktown Police Department.
“How could these people not recognize what this young man (McWilliam) was suffering from?” Riverso said. “Because there was no training...They’re profit centers run by inexperienced people who should not be there helping someone who is disabled. These are disabled people in the eyes of the federal law. So, let’s protect them.”
“Every day we drive by that facility, they’re still operating with complete impunity of the zoning laws of the town of Yorktown, and nobody can do a thing to stop them,” Riverso said. “They’re not part of our community and they’re just operating above and beyond the law.”
Senator Murphy, who represents Yorktown and is a member of the task force, said the comments were not falling on deaf ears.
“We are definitely not going to throw our hands up the air,” Murphy said. “I can promise you that. That is definitely not going to happen. This is something that needs to get done the right way—good, bad or ugly. We need to know all the information and have it on the plate, so we can digest it and do it the right way.”