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Sober home findings leading to statewide changes

Posted at 11:58 PM, Feb 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-25 06:14:23-05

Sober homes are finally coming under the microscope of the state after years of rampant fraud in the industry.

What's really going on when they move into your neighborhood?

As part of a months-long investigation, we got access to a sober home viewed as a role model in Florida.

Fellowship Living in Margate is also one of the first sober homes in Florida to apply for and receive voluntary certification under a new state law that aims to eliminate fraud in the industry. What we found by examining Fellowship is already leading to changes that will impact sober homes across the entire state. 

Rick Riccardi is a recovering addict and the founder of Fellowship Living. He says his sober homes battle two enemies -addiction and perception.

"People just have a sense, a false sense, that the property values will drop, that there will be drug dealers hanging around, that there will be robberies and just the opposite is the truth," said Riccardi.

Fellowship Living, a model sober home according to the state, has a wall of community service awards including "Best of the Best" from the Margate Chamber of Commerce three years running.

"Part of our community is all about service and giving back" Riccardi said.

It starts with encouraging those in recovery to take pride in their surroundings.

"If you see our yards and our grass and everything. Everything we do is to upgrade the properties" Riccardi said.

Since 2010 the value of Fellowship's four properties and its immediate neighbors have increased an average of 45%.

But for concerned neighbors Its about more than facades.

We took a look at all police activity at Fellowship's four buildings and its immediate neighbors before and after it opened its doors in January 2008.

We found 77 police incidents from 2000 through 2007 and 199 from 2008 through 2015. That works out to a 158% increase in police incidents.

"I would expect that there is more police activity from a quality, certified, sober home that is maintaining standards" said John Lehman the President of FARR.

FARR stands for Florida Association of Recovery Residences. FARR is the agency recently chosen by the state of Florida to handle the voluntary certification process for sober homes that chose to participate. It's also tasked with oversight of all sober homes in Florida. 

Lehman says he expects increased police incidents at quality sober homes because he expects those populations to police themselves when things go wrong. 

"Because somewhere between 50, 40 or 30 percent of all of the individuals that live in a recovery residence are going to relapse" Lehman said.

When we looked closer a number of the police reports are for intoxication, suicide attempts and Baker Acts. A Baker Act is when someone is put on a protective hold after presenting a threat to themselves or others. All of these are sad facts of life in the recovery community.

"Do you understand people's concerns with sober homes?" asked Contact 5 Investigator Jared Werksma.

"Oh yes, yes absolutely" said Lehman.

"I myself am in long term recovery and I would not want someone actively using drugs living next door to me. The only house (people) can be absolutely certain there is no drugs or alcohol going on in is at the certified recovery residence" Lehman said.

But the system relies on good owners and operators which Lehman says FARR will conduct background checks on using an FBI database.

"What about tenants?" Werksma asked.

"No, there is some screening that's done. Violent criminals that are on parole or probation individuals that are registered sex offenders, they're not eligible to live in a FARR certified recovery residence" Lehman said.

But Contact 5 discovered that's not true. We found a registered sex offender living at Fellowship Living and brought it to Lehman's attention.

"Fellowship Living is certified by FARR?" Werksma asked.

"Yes" Lehman replied.

"And they were certified despite the fact that a sex offender lives there?" Werksma asked.

"They were certified before the sex offender moved in" Lehman replied.

Lehman says there was some debate about whether or not FARR and sober homes in general could legally discriminate against sex offenders. Lehman says FARR's attorneys have since decided they can. However, since our interview FARR has changed its position on sex offenders - now allowing certified homes to make their own acceptance policies that must be submitted for approval.

"Do you make sure that none of the tenants are wanted criminals?" Werksma asked.

"Do we? No," Lehman replied.

Contact 5 found police records showing at least three people were arrested at Fellowship Living on open warrants in 2015.

"That is one of people's biggest concerns though. Why wouldn't you keep track of that?" Werksma asked.

"Because we don't have the money to do it" Lehman replied.

Lehman admits this is a process that will need to be improved upon. He says FARR'S primary concern is helping addicts stay sober.

We asked a group of about a dozen recovering addicts who live at Fellowship Living what they think would happen to them if not for sober homes like Fellowship.  They immediately started shouting out  "We'd be dead...or in jail."

As a result of our investigation FARR is also working to partner with a company to handle background checks on all tenants in certified sober homes.

The process to get control over these homes has a long way to go. It's estimated there are more than 3,000 sober homes across Florida. So far only about 400 have applied for certification through FARR.

Any sober home that still isn't certified by FARR when the law takes full effect in July will no longer be able to receive referrals from licensed treatment facilities. Referrals are largely how sober homes get their clients. FARR and supporters of this new certification process believe without those referrals the sober homes will simply go out of business.