Hypothetical scenarios loop through June Clark’s mind on an endless circuit.
What if her son, Matthew Brennan, hadn’t ever gotten involved with drugs? What if she’d seen through his seemingly successful career and home life to the underlying heroin addiction? What if the sober home he was living in told someone when he got kicked out for using?
“He called me, asked me to come for a few days because he said he’d found a new apartment to move to,” Clark recalled. “He’d been doing so well. I believed him. He really pulled the wool over my eyes.”
She continued, “if I had known he was using again, I’d really have kept a closer eye on him. Not that I wasn’t watching, but ...”
Clark trailed off, unable to voice the rest of the question. If she had known to keep a closer watch, could she have saved him, have prevented him from overdosing in her basement bedroom where she found him dead in November 2016?
She didn’t blame Prodigal Son House for making Brennan leave after he was caught using. She understood the need for a sobriety policy. But someone there should have let her or his probation officer or his therapist know.
Rick Mayhew, Brennan’s probation officer, confirmed he didn’t know his client was no longer living at the west Frederick sober house until he found out Brennan was dead.
Mayhew emphasized it was not a common problem; usually Prodigal Son and the other recovery houses tell him if a client leaves. But he was equally adamant that one slip-up was too many.
“We need to know so we can intervene,” Mayhew said. “You’ve got to grab these people right away, or they’ll end up in your obituary section.”
Paul Foss, who owns and runs the west Frederick sober house, maintained the program always notifies necessary court and treatment providers when a resident leaves or is kicked out. Asked about Brennan, Foss said he could not speak to what then-house manager Jim Shields did.
Shields, also a recovering addict who ran Prodigal Son House and nearby Wakefield House for four years, didn’t remember whom he told when he kicked Brennan out, adding that he was overseeing more than 30 men between the two houses at the time.
Clark reached out to health officials and politicians to share what she believed to be negligence on the part of the program, but found no recourse. Prodigal Son House has no standards or agency to dictate its rules.
It doesn’t offer medical treatment or any in-house services. Foss framed it as a chance for recovering addicts to start over, shedding their addiction and crime-ridden pasts for lives of purpose and, in his program specifically, of faith. Residents must participate in a 12-step program, attend church services and small group Bible studies, work, volunteer and, above all, stay sober while agreeing to random drug testing. There are also house meetings and presentations combining group support, faith and training on topics such as relationships and budgeting.
Residents and graduates credited the program for teaching them accountability and trust in a higher power. But Clark framed it differently, noting the lack of oversight for the private, self-funded program.
“I’ve got two vacant rooms in my house,” she said. “ I could rent them out to drug addicts and call it a sober house. These kids, they’re young, they’re vulnerable, they’re coming from a bad place. They should be able to trust the programs, to trust [that] the people running them actually care.”
Setting the standard
Lack of standards for residential recovery programs prompted Maryland Delegate Herb McMillan (R-Anne Arundel) to draft legislation calling for a state-run review and certification process. The bill, which passed in the 2016 legislative session, set up the Maryland Certification for Recovery Residences.
The Maryland Department of Health in November rolled out its four-tiered certification process using standards about living conditions, sobriety policies and financial practices from the National Alliance for Recovery Residences.
Programs must prove they meet these requirements through a detailed application and an on-site inspection in order to receive state certification, according to Marian Bland, the director of the state’s clinical services division. Certified programs are listed on a directory published on the state website.
However, only programs that receive state funding or advertise themselves as “certified” recovery residences must be certified. Privately funded programs that do not bill themselves as certified have no obligation to comply with the standards.
Though he is not required to, Foss was considering seeking certification for the Prodigal Son House anyway. He supported mandatory standards for all residential recovery programs, some of which he said put profits above safety and sobriety.
“The lack of standards really does create kind of this Wild West in recovery,” he said.
Eric Wakefield, who runs the peer-led sober homes — one for men and one for women — known as Wakefield Houses, also referenced some sober houses that were unsafe. However, he has found his program works best when residents are empowered to take control of their lives and well-being rather than be beholden to state funding or rules.
He also said the state’s certification process was too complicated and onerous for a small, private program like his to realistically complete.
Christina Trenton, chief operating officer of Wells House, feared the rigor and expense of state certification requirements could dissuade providers from opening or maintaining sober house programs.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Trenton said. She characterized the state’s efforts to establish a set of standards as a positive step.
“I do worry that it will reduce the opportunities for people to have safe and secure housing, which is a really critical part of recovery,” she added.
McMillan maintained the legislation was intended to require certification for all recovery residences, regardless of whether they used the word “certified” or received state funding. He said the limited way the state has implemented the bill did a disservice to the sober house clients and surrounding neighborhoods he intended to protect.
The Frederick News-Post spoke with two neighbors and three recovery organization employees about their concerns with the Prodigal Son and Wakefield Houses. All requested their names not be used, citing potential backlash.
Neighbors’ points of contention were fairly innocuous. One woman, who has since moved, said it “gave me the creeps” to walk past the Wakefield House when the men were sitting outside on the porch. She felt uncomfortable given their addiction and potential criminal histories.
A man who still lives in the neighborhood named noise, cars blocking his driveway and cigarette smoke that wafted to his property among his complaints. He had not seen evidence of any criminal or unsafe activity, characterizing the house residents’ behavior as “inconsiderate, bordering on rude.”
One woman who works for a recovery services organization in Frederick, however, deemed the programs unsafe for addicts in recovery because of loosely enforced sobriety policies.
Another clinician in a different treatment organization said she would never refer her clients to either house, and has petitioned for clients with court-ordered treatment to go elsewhere.
“The joke among many clients is that it’s not a halfway house so much as a quarter house,” she said.
Trenton did not know of problems with either of these two programs, but noted generally that some places were “more professional” than others. She added that Wells House is discriminative in which sober houses it recommends to clients based on factors including how they are run and how much it costs to live there.
Prodigal Son and Wakefield House residents pay about $600 in monthly rent, though program leaders said they don’t immediately kick people out for missed payments due to unemployment or financial hardship. Each house holds up to 12 people, though they’re not always full.
The rent and program fees help fund the mortgage, maintenance and utilities for the houses and the cost of urine tests used randomly to ensure sobriety.
Both Foss and Wakefield maintained that their programs enforced strict sobriety policies, though they also give conditional second chances when residents are caught using. Relapses happen in any kind of recovery program, said Andrea Walker, director of Behavioral Health Services for the Frederick County Health Department.
There has been one call each for a reported overdose at the Prodigal Son House and one of the Wakefield Houses since 2015, according to call records collected by the Frederick County Emergency Communications Center. Other calls to the houses were for seizures, “decreased level of consciousness” and cardiac arrest, which may or may not be linked to drug use.
Frederick Police Sgt. Andrew Alcorn, a supervisor in the department’s Criminal Investigation Division, said the three houses were not places his unit frequently responds to or investigates for overdose deaths.
Shields framed some of the criticism of the programs as a perception-rooted prejudice about recovering addicts.
“A recovering addict is just a normal person that has a disease, same as someone with cancer,” he said. “Instead of pointing their finger, I wish people would help lift them up.”