Lawmakers approve $19.4 million for program for cash-strapped children’s program

Providers and state officials urged lawmakers to back the funding, saying it’s necessary to keep the program for high–need children going

By: - June 22, 2023 6:00 am
Parrott Creek Ranch in Oregon City serves children with mental health problems

From left: Payton Capperelli, an addiction counselor; educators Brian Darshay and Vince Haggard; and Elle Vershingel, medical and intake coordinator work at Parrott Creek Ranch in Oregon City. (Michael Romanos/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

For hundreds of Oregon’s most vulnerable  children and youth, a state program gives them a chance to heal.

Some have been homeless, abused or arrested. Others bounced from foster home to foster home, becoming calloused and fearful of abandonment. 

Their families cannot take care of them, and traditional counseling has failed. In one case, a teenage boy’s parents had to leave their house and call for help, fearful their son may harm them. In another, a boy calmly told his mother how he would kill his family and bury them in the backyard.

For these children and about 300 others, Oregon’s Behavior Rehabilitation Services program is a final option. Children who enter this program receive psychiatric residential care and mentoring and attend classes to learn about anger management, forming proper relationships and overcoming trauma.

State lawmakers decided the program needed more money to continue operating. As a result, they’ve allocated $19.4 million to providers to raise staff pay and cover other costs.

The providers, often nonprofit organizations, serve children who enter the state-funded program through the Oregon Department of Human Services or the Oregon Youth Authority. The children’s only other options are juvenile jail or a hotel room staffed with child welfare workers.

The money was tucked into the Legislature’s end-of-session budget bill, which has more than $1.1 billion in state funding for various purposes. The last-minute infusion of cash demonstrates the wide reach of lawmakers’ decisions in the final scramble of the legislative session, which must adjourn by Sunday.

Parrott Creek Ranch Youth Services in Oregon City serves children with mental health problems
Ameyalli Mañon-Ferguson, a cultural ecologist and staff member at Parrott Creek Ranch in Oregon City, harvests strips of cedar for weaving. (Michael Romanos/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Before the budget bill came out, managers at Parrott Creek Child and Family Services in Oregon City were uncertain whether they could continue operating the program, which serves about 20 children there.

“They’ve dodged that bullet, which is fantastic,” Simon Fulford, Parrott Creek’s executive director, said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle. “The difference for Parrott Creek is we would have really considered closing down 20 beds for kids. We’ll be keeping those beds.”

Parents: Program serves a key role

The service is often a last resort for parents after attempts to resolve issues with their children through other programs, parents told the  Capital Chronicle.

In one case, a 14-year-old boy from Portland is in a foster home after years of problems with his parents, who adopted him in 2017. He went through several traumatic experiences, including the suicide of his adoptive mother’s first husband. 

He also tried to light his family’s house on fire and spent nearly 12 weeks in a hospital’s psychiatric treatment wing, his mother said in an interview. The Capital Chronicle agreed not to name the child or mother to protect their privacy as he recovers.

Residents go wild with their rooms at Parrott Creek Youth Services in Oregon City.
Residents go wild with their rooms at Parrott Creek Ranch in Oregon City. (Michael Romanos/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The family tried grief counseling after the suicide, as well as equine therapy and enrollment in a military school.

At times, he ran away. At others, he told his mother how he would kill her, his father and his sisters, clean up the blood and bury them in the backyard.

“He was very calm and matter of fact,” his mother said.

After a trip to the hospital, the Oregon Department of Human Services got involved. First, he went into a foster home with an elderly woman who complained to caseworkers about a potentially homicidal kid in her home.

He spent time in a hotel room and was shuffled around to different facilities and programs. He’s now in a foster home in the program.

“He’s not just a number in a bed like he was in the psych ward,” the mother said. “He still needs the hand holding, the support that comes with being one-on-one, but he doesn’t need to be locked away from society.”

In another case, a Portland couple needed the program for their 15-year-old son, who they adopted when he was 13. By then, he had been in and out of foster homes for years. That trauma, in turn, triggered behavioral problems, his father said.

He stole and hoarded food. He attacked people if he believed they were abandoning him. At times, the parents had to abandon him in their home for their own safety. Once, he gave his mother a concussion. Another time, he punched holes in the drywall.

“This was not because of a lack of love for him or his lack of love for us but because he can’t control his emotions,” the father said. “After years of physical injury and all kinds of violent trauma against us, it just became clear that if we stayed any more, it could be like a game-ender.”

Parrott Creek Ranch in Oregon City
Residents work on their studies at Parrott Creek Ranch in Oregon City. (Michael Romanos/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Now, the boy is in the program and the parents have weekend visits with him. The environment allows the family to enjoy time together with less stress, and they plan an eventual reunification.

The father sees the potential of his son to have a bright future – as long as the state funds the program.

Money will help recruit and retail staff

For Parrott Creek, time was running out.

In 2022, Parrott Creek received nearly $400,000 in additional state funding when lawmakers approved a package of incentives for different behavioral health providers. At the time, federal pandemic-related dollars propped up the state budget. But that extra money will run out at the end of this month and until this week, the provider and dozens of others were looking at a budget cliff.

The money can help with higher wages for staff. Fulford said an entry-level staffer in the program earns about $18.50 an hour, which is not competitive enough. In comparison, Fulford noted his teenage son is earning $18 an hour at a summer job with the Portland Parks and Recreation Department.

For now, Parrott Creek is working on budget scenarios and making calculations for how much it can increase salaries, Fulford said. The rate structure is complex and depends on the level of services for each child. But on average, the change could allow a $2-an-hour increase for most workers, he said.

The staff include counselors who assist children with life skills and group activities and coordinate trips for them. They tend to them while in crisis and celebrate their victories with them.

At Parrott Creek, children get a chance to still be kids: They shoot hoops, lift weights and go on field trips.

Parrott Creek Ranch Youth Services in Oregon City serves children with mental health problems
Parrott Creek Ranch in Oregon City offers a range of physical activities. (Michael Romanos/Oregon Capital Chronicle)


Parrott Creek’s situation – and improved outlook – represents the picture for other children’s providers throughout the state, said Royce Bowlin, chief executive officer with Oregon Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for children and their providers.

The group urged lawmakers to approve the funding, which Bowlin said represents an average 30% increase, varying based on the services provided.

“You have these people who do incredible work and get crappy wages,” Bowlin said. “It’s a huge relief.”

In a survey of its members, the alliance found Oregon’s programs would have lost the ability to serve about 100 children statewide. About 120 staffers would have lost their jobs, the survey found. 

Separately, state officials with the Oregon Department of Human Services, Oregon Youth Authority and Oregon Health Authority asked lawmakers to approve the funding in a May 31 letter.

“Without additional funding, we will not have a stable system for agencies to rely on, nor to provide services for Oregon children,” the letter said.

Lawmakers learned about the need well before the session started. In 2022, they directed the agencies to conduct a rate study and recommend changes for providers. That study, finished in February, recommended higher rates.


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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from the Midwest to Idaho for his first journalism job. Botkin has won multiple awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.