New legislation to impose stricter rules for Tennessee sober living homes

Tenn. capitol
Posted at 9:09 PM, Aug 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-12 15:47:01-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It was a step towards recovery that instead would end in tragedy.

“So she called and talked to me and says ‘mom I think I’ve decided to live in a sober home because there’s so many temptations out here’ and a kid her age, she didn’t want to go back out there and I was very proud of her,” said Geneva Baird. Her daughter Katie Baird was one of three women who died in a fire at a south Nashville sober living home three years ago.

Tennessee raising the bar for sober living homes
Katie Baird was one of three women who died in a 2018 fire at a south Nashville sober living home. Her mother believes legislation like the recently amended SAFE Act could prevent future tragedies like hers.

“She called me at 5:37 a.m. screaming ‘help me mom’, wheezing,” recalled Baird. “So my instinct was to say, as always, ‘it’s ok, calm down, I’m coming. Just take a deep breath.’ When I told her to do that she did and she dropped the phone.” At the time, Baird had no clue her daughter was trying to escape the fire.

Metro officials said there were no smoke detectors or sprinklers inside the home. “No parent should have to lose a child, especially like this,” said Baird. A Metro Police investigation eventually classified the deaths as accidental. Meanwhile, a Nashville Fire Department investigation classified the fire as undetermined with a "high probability it was caused by careless smoking".

Shortly after the incident, Tennessee passed the Stopping Addiction and Fostering Excellence or “SAFE” Act. It included posting signage in homes disclosing if they do not subscribe to national accreditation bodies.

“If you’re not following those accreditation standards then there is a sign that is required in the common areas- so the kitchen, the living room, that kind of thing, that basically says ‘this home does not adhere to best practices',” said Representative Michael Curcio who co-sponsored the bill. “I am amazed at the type of regulations or the type of standards that you see from these accreditation bodies.”

But ultimately counties could decide whether or not to implement these rules. In reality, many didn’t, so legislators recently made it mandatory across all Tennessee counties.

Among other things, the new legislation also says "if a licensed residential treatment facility refers to a home that is not accredited, then they could lose their license,” said Curcio. In other words, for a home to receive referrals it must now opt in to a national accreditation body.

“It gives me some sort of solitude. I believe that the individuals who put this into place had a very high standard, it says a lot about their character because they care,” said Baird.

It’s another step towards creating the best facilities in the state, something Geneva Baird hopes will help others like her daughter. She said her long-term goal is to open a sober living home in memory of Katie.

In the meantime, Baird keeps her daughter's memory alive through her program "A Purse Full Of Love", in which she collects purses filled with products and handwritten notes donated to women working towards addiction recovery.

Footprints to Recovery sent us a statement saying, "The fire in 2018 was a tragedy that we all look back on as we continue to move forward. We have since joined with TNARR, who is a part of a nationally recognized organization that certifies recovery homes across the state. TNARR partnered with Michael Curcio and other national addiction agencies in building the SAFE Act and the continuation of its evolution. We look forward to growing with the state and the nation with others to help by leading by example on how we hold each other accountable to create and encourage safe and affordable environments for people with addiction.”

The new legislation will go into effect July 1, 2022 giving facilities a year to prepare.