Arrest raises new concerns about abuse at sober homes

Attorney David Perry’s addiction has been marked in various courtrooms for more than a decade. Although he became a symbol of addiction recovery success, charges for which he appeared in court Monday shatter that.

Among other things, a 34-count indictment from the state attorney general accuses Perry — the owner of the sober house Recovery Education Services (RES) in Roxbury — of offering drugs and legal representation to residents of his house in exchange for sex.

Several people in Boston’s recovery community say they aren’t surprised by the charges. They say Perry’s case points to the need for stronger regulations on sober homes, especially those that don’t become voluntarily certified, which is the only oversight mechanism in Massachusetts. They also say the state needs to ensure that addiction treatment centers are not sending patients to uncertified sober homes for aftercare.
Some Clients ‘Afraid To Complain’

Timothy Ostman, 34, says he lived at Perry’s sober house in 2016. He — and some other RES clients who didn’t want to be named in this story — agree with much of what is outlined in the indictment.

“When you actually first moved in, some people would say, ‘Oh, you don’t have to pay rent, don’t worry about it. You’ll just go to the “big bed,” ‘ which meant you’d end up sleeping with Dave Perry if you couldn’t pay the rent,” Ostman said. “Or if you had legal issues people would say, ‘Dave will take care of you if you take care of him.’"

Ostman says many people are afraid to complain about sober housing conditions because they’re often required to live in sober housing as conditions of probation or to get custody of their children. The AG’s indictment also accuses Perry of providing false letters to probation officials on behalf of people associated with RES, in exchange for sex, drugs and money.

Perry’s lawyer, Peter Pasciucco, says his client denies all the charges and he says Perry has helped, not harmed, scores of people with substance use disorders. At his arraignment this month, Perry was released on $10,000 bail, ordered to wear a GPS monitoring device, and was ordered to stay away from the sober house and those people on a list of those who testified before a grand jury.

Perry’s Story

Perry has been open about his battles with drugs and alcohol. He’s been a frequent speaker at AA meetings and conferences for more than a decade. He says his fight started as a teenager and although he was able to secure a well-paying legal career and all the material signs of success, he couldn’t stop drinking and using drugs until 2001, when he was arrested in a federal narcotics sweep.

“If you were standing next to me in court that day,” Perry said at one meeting recorded online, “shackles on my hands, feet and waist. My father sitting in the back wondering what he had done wrong. ... You would think it was the worst day in my life. I’ve come here to tell you that it was not.”

Perry calls that arrest “a direct hit” that got his attention and forced him to change. He spent five years on federal probation, which he says helped turn his life into one of helping others with substance use disorders.

Perry’s story of redemption convinced the Massachusetts Bar of Board Overseers to readmit him to practice law in 2014. In a transcript of the hearing to readmit Perry, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf told Perry: “You have substantially contributed to the improvement and happiness of others. I hope and trust that you will sustain your efforts.”

But Wolf added, “The challenges never disappear and the journey is never over.”

The Difficulty with Regulations

The belief in Perry’s redemption also allowed him to secure a contract with at least one licensed addiction treatment provider so patients would continue their aftercare treatment while they lived in his sober home. Several former residents tell WBUR they were referred to RES by their substance use treatment center, Bournewood in Brookline. They say after they completed detox there, they could continue in Bournewood’s day program and Bournewood would pay their rent at RES. Bournewood CEO Marcia Fowler says she works with various area sober homes but stopped working with RES at the beginning of this year.

“Our main criteria for our relationships with the sober homes is ensuring that there is a clean and sober environment,” Fowler said. “We had concerns [from] the patients that we were referring there that the environment was not supportive of their recovery.”

A 2014 Massachusetts law set up a process where sober homes could become certified, but it’s voluntary. In 2015, the law required that any vendor with a state contract refer people only to a certified sober home.

State Sen. John Keenan, vice chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, says lawmakers will likely review whether licensed treatment programs are complying with the law.

He says it’s difficult to regulate sober homes because of federal housing laws that prohibit discrimination against those with disabilities, a group that includes people with addiction. But Keenan says that especially after these allegations the state will work to improve oversight.

Navigating Sober Home Certification

The Massachusetts Alliance for Sober Housing, or MASH, has certified about 160 homes throughout the state that provide more than 2,000 beds. Average weekly rents range between $160 and $185.

MASH Executive Director Marie Graves says certification means a sober house meets a set of standards and passes third-party safety inspections.
“Right now the certification is pretty strong and we’re really confident with how we’re operating our certified homes,” Graves said. “What our sober homes do is provide a safe, sober environment of support and recovery. We don’t provide treatment; we let the professionals do that.”

A recent General Accountability Office report looked at sober housing in five states, including Massachusetts. It mentions the complaint process as being significant, but it also says there were no recent revocations of any sober home certifications in Massachusetts.

While sober home certification is considered an improvement over how sober homes operated just a few years ago, it’s not clear how many uncertified homes like Perry’s are in Massachusetts. Some treatment providers estimate that only about 20 percent of the sober homes operating in the state are certified.

Perry has another court appearance on separate charges next month. In November he was accused of conspiring to smuggle the addiction medicine Suboxone to his client at the Middlesex County Jail and House of Correction. The state Board of Bar Overseers says it is aware of the situation and is discussing disciplinary options with Perry.

This story, from which the above excerpts were taken, first aired on May 20 on WBUR 90.9 FM, Boston’s NPR News Station. The Reporter and WBUR have a partnership in which the two news organizations share resources. Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR.