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Oregonian Editorial Sunday June 8, 2008


An unseemly fear of the mentally ill

Local uproars over secure residential treatment facilities

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Apair of overheated community controversies in the Portland area have dealt an unfortunate setback to state efforts to provide humane residential care for the mentally ill.

One of these recent uproars targeted a newly opened secure treatment facility in Cornelius. The other succeeded in blocking such a group home in Milwaukie.

Like the Cornelius facility, the Milwaukie home would have housed patients released from the Oregon State Hospital. Some of them would have been forensic patients, those who have committed crimes but were found guilty except for insanity.

Sound scary? Of course it does, especially if you're a neighbor who receives an incendiary letter warning about the patients, like the one Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon distributed to 1,300 neighbors in Cornelius last December.

The predictable firestorm that erupted there came on the heels of a similar backlash in Clackamas County. After more than 150 neighbors met to protest plans for the treatment facility in Milwaukie, city officials maneuvered behind the scenes to snap up the property proposed for the home, a purchase that resulted in a lawsuit alleging state and federal laws were broken.

As the state seeks to open another half-dozen such treatment facilities across Oregon, here's what community leaders and residents need to know: These group homes have operated for 40 years in this state without being a threat to public safety.

Oregon's Psychiatric Security Review Board, charged with protecting the public by judging how best to handle such patients, has an excellent safety record. In fact, among advocates for the mentally ill, the board has a reputation for being too tough, erring relentlessly on the side of caution in patient release.

These homes are locked, and the patients are under 24-hour care and supervision. Their recidivism rate is minuscule, barely 7 percent that of inmates released from prison.

Community-based care for the mentally ill is humane and enshrined in law. Patients deemed stabilized and ready for residential treatment cannot be confined in psychiatric hospitals as they were a half-century ago. In January, a searing report by the U.S. Justice Department found pervasive civil rights violations at the Oregon State Hospital, including overcrowding and the warehousing of patients who should have been released but had nowhere to go.

That's a problem the Legislature is trying to address by funding the opening of additional residential treatment facilities. Now that enlightened effort is jeopardized by the spate of community uprisings, including the recent storm of protest that blocked plans for a home in Fossil for mentally ill sex offenders who are civilly committed.

This isn't a uniquely Oregon problem. It's part of a shameful national pushback that has helped fill our city streets with the mentally ill and transform our prisons into the new asylums of the 21st century

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