CHILDREN IN CRISIS: Strained mental health system failing Oregon children

Read all four parts of our series reporting how the state has poured millions in stopgap measures into the system but leaves major challenges ahead

By: - November 5, 2021 6:00 am
Angela Weirich, her husband Eli Weirich and their four children

The Weirich family in Maryland in 2015 before they moved to Oregon. From left: Grace, Maggie, Angela, Eli, Maya and Kati. (Angela Weirich)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of the most troubled children in Oregon are failing to get the care they need in Oregon. The reasons are complex but the impact is clear.  This is a compilation of the four-part series reported by Deputy Editor Lynne Terry of Oregon Capital Chronicle. – Editor Les Zaitz

PART 1: 

CHILDREN IN CRISIS: Mental health, addiction care falling short for distressed children

The pandemic has hit the children’s mental health care system in Oregon hard.

Already struggling to hire staff, residential care facilities have been smacked with a workforce crisis that’s reduced the already thin supply of beds.

Some people, like Angela Weirich, have even moved out of state to get help for their children.

Over the last four years, Weirich’s daughter has cycled in and out of emergency rooms, residential treatment, and outpatient therapy.

The 16-year-old had treatment and medication but still she acted out. She attacked family members, ran away and skipped school. 

Last spring she tried repeatedly to end her life.

Following specialized hospital treatment, she was ready again for treatment in a residential setting.

But none was available.

Rainy Williams and her son
Rainy Williams and her 8-year-old son pose for a photo outside of their home in Salem on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

PART 2: CHILDREN IN CRISIS: ‘Bottlenecked’ mental health system leaves kids untreated

Some large providers no longer take children with severe symptoms because they don’t have enough employees to care for them.

“In many cases, we are not able to accept the severe level of acuity that is coming to us,” said Miki Herman, interim CEO of Albertina Kerr in Portland, which has a group home and a psychiatric residential facility for children. “There are no options for these families and the kids to get the care that they need.”

Providers also have seen an increased need for addiction treatment. 

Herman said Albertina Kerr has temporarily shut five group homes for developmentally and intellectually disabled children that it couldn’t staff.

Some mental health facilities have closed for good.

An empty patient room at the Children's Farm Home run by Trillium Family Services in Corvallis on Friday, Oct. 29.
An empty patient room at the Children’s Farm Home run by Trillium Family Services in Corvallis on Friday, Oct. 29. The facility currently does not have enough staff to take on more inpatient residents, leaving a building empty. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

PART 3: CHILDREN IN CRISIS: Pandemic sparked exodus of employees in children’s mental health system

Jobs in residential care facilities for children are demanding. 

Employees are with the children around the clock, helping them with daily activities. They’re responsible for keeping the children safe, and If a crisis erupts, their job is to diffuse it. 

The facilities also have child and family therapists and other staff. 

Many entry-level jobs in residential care facilities require a bachelor’s degree, while therapists, who devise treatment plans, typically must have a master’s degree. They work under the supervision of a psychiatrist.

The jobs are high stress.  Employees who are with the children around-the-clock endure aggression and violence – and the pay is poor.

Employees often don’t get the supervision and training they need to feel supported, said Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, director of child and adolescent psychiatry education at Oregon Health & Science University.

“We saw a massive loss of workforce in the children’s health system,” Jetmalani said. “And what’s happened now is that people are not coming back.”

A playground outside of a at the Children's Farm Home run by Trillium Family Services in Corvallis on Friday, Oct. 29.
A playground outside of a at the Children’s Farm Home run by Trillium Family Services in Corvallis on Friday, Oct. 29. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

PART 4: CHILDREN IN CRISIS: Improvement is slow for distressed Oregon families

Gov. Kate Brown and state leaders recognize that Oregon faces a crisis in children’s behavioral health care. The lack of staff and residential care facility beds means that children never get the kind of long-term treatment they need to be able to live at home normally, overcome their emotions and stabilize. 

Over the past two sessions, the Legislature shored up the sector with more money, including bolstering in-home services. But just as those were getting ramped up, the pandemic shut them down.

The Oregon Health Authority and Department of Human Services have offered some stopgap solutions during the pandemic, allocating millions more to providers. But those who serve this population say a long-term fix is needed.

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry, who has more than 30 years of journalism experience, is Oregon Capital Chronicle's editor-in-chief. She previously was editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site; reported on health in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio.