Advocates craft bills on bolstering children’s mental health services in Oregon

The simmering crisis in behavioral health for children could get fresh legislative attention in February.

By: - November 12, 2021 5:30 am
mental health Children's Farm Home in Corvallis

The Children’s Farm Home run by Trillium Family Services in Corvallis on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. It is now called Trillium’s Corvallis Campus. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Advocates for the children’s mental health system hope to persuade legislators in their February session to do more to help providers who have struggled to stay afloat. 

Among the bills in the works is one that would send resources to rural areas to help officials find solutions for homeless youth. They often have the will, but lack the means to do much.

“It used to be more of a metro issue,” said Royce Bowlin, executive director of the Oregon Alliance, which represents children’s providers. “Now it’s spread out.”

But the plight of homeless youth is not always so visible. Many couch surf and rely on friends.

“You don’t see them as much,” Bowlin said. “But they’re often exploited.”

Children of color are often the most affected, he said.

Another focus for advocates and lawmakers is increasing funds to providers. They’ve been pressing the state for months for more money to hire and retain staff.

Bowlin hopes this issue will get more legislative support so providers can stay in business and provide help for troubled youth.

The problem is not new, as our series, Children in Crisis, showed.

We’re in danger of collapse.

– Chris Bouneff, executive director of the Portland-based National Alliance on Mental Illness Oregon, an education, support and advocacy group

PART 1: 

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

Rainy Williams, a single mom to three children, has struggled to find help for her 8-year-old son. He was sexually abused as a toddler, and now suffers wild mood swings and lashes out in violence.

In September, he shattered a window, cut his lip, broke a glass lamp and hurled dishes at her. She said 9-1-1 refused to dispatch anyone to transport him to a hospital emergency room. 

The next day, with her son in another crisis, she took him to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis. She needed the help of police to get him inside. 

Salem Health’s attempts to refer patients to outside residential psychiatric treatment facilities are typically unsuccessful for the simple reason that these facilities are full. This is a sad reality, and we often see the repercussions in the emergency room, where patients who can’t access to appropriate treatment in the community are forced to return in moments of crisis.

– Salem Health

Part 2

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

The jobs in children’s residential treatment facilities are difficult — and stressful.

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. 

Employees often don’t get the supervision and training they need to feel supported.

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

– Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, director of child and adolescent psychiatry education at Oregon Health & Science University

Part 3

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

The pandemic hit Pennsylvania, too, but Angela Weirich, who moved her family from Oregon, found more help there. 

After her daughter tried again to kill herself, Weirich called Pennsylvania’s child services. They told her she had to obtain permission from a state official for crisis treatment.

She got it.

“We talked to the mental health delegate there and told him her story,” Weirich said. “They found her a bed in an inpatient (facility) in six hours.”

In Oregon, children wait months for admission into a mental health residential facility, provided they are lucky enough to even find an opening.

NAMI’s proposal is an emergency infusion to get hourly compensation to a competitive level for a long enough duration to get more solid data on rate structure that put providers in a position to compete in the labor market and provide high quality of services.

– Chris Bouneff, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Oregon

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 has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.