Morrow-Wheeler Behavioral Health pulls center plan’s plug

Morrow County Courthouse

Morrow County Courthouse

from the East Oregonian, June 13, 2008

The eight-bed treatment center for mentally ill men that Morrow-Wheeler Behavioral Health (MWBH) tried to build near Fossil, and now Boardman, may have finally met its demise amid a firestorm of public opposition.

The organization’s director, Kimberly Lindsay, said she and the board of directors decided not to build the facility in Boardman after more than 40 people called to express their opposition to the project.

Lindsay said the organization did not want to force the center onto a community that doesn’t want it, even though she believes many of the people who opposed the project were misled about the center and the type of people who would have been treated there.

The calls Lindsay and the board members received, she said, were often from people who recently had been visited by someone who was giving out information about the proposed project. Some of the information was correct, Lindsay said, and some was incorrect or misleading.

For example, some people were told the patients who would be treated at the center were criminal sex offenders, which is untrue, Lindsay said.

“There is a big difference between a sexually inappropriate episode because of an untreated mental illness and a sex-related crime,” she said.

The men who would have been chosen for the treatment center are in recovery from mental illness and are receiving appropriate treatment and medication, she said. They have been civilly committed, which means they were deemed a danger to themselves or others at some time because of mental illness, but they are not institutionalized because they committed a crime.

Furthermore, she said, the men who would have been chosen for the site have no history of relapse and no history of trying to escape.

The state has chosen to build more community-based treatment centers, Lindsay said, because the Oregon State Hospital is old and crowded.

“Many of the patients have been on the list for a secure residential facility for years, but there is no place to go,” Lindsay said.

Boardman already is home to a residential treatment facility for mentally ill patients called Columbia River Ranch, but, unlike the proposed facility, the patients are free to move around the community.

Lindsay said the center would have brought $65,000 a month to the community in payroll alone. The center also would have bought its prescriptions in town, which would have come to about $500 a month, and its groceries, which would have come to about $3,000 to $4,000 a month. Construction of the building would have brought $1.2 million to area contractors.

Ken Palke, Oregon Department of Human Services communications officer, said residential treatment centers are a step in the recovery process for mentally ill patients.

The rigid treatment regimes of the state hospital, Palke said, do not encourage self-reliance and transition back to the community.

“We cannot warehouse people in the state hospital – this isn’t the 19th century,” Palke said.

The chairman of the MWBH board of directors and Wheeler County District Attorney Tom Cutsforth said when the organization attempted to build the center near Fossil, nearby residents threatened to burn the building down. One resident said he would shoot the patients if he happened to see them on the street, Cutsforth said.

Cutsforth said he supported the project because it would have brought much-needed money and jobs to the county.

“The county that needs the most economic help is Wheeler,” Cutsforth said. “There are residential treatment centers all over Eastern Oregon, but they just never told anyone, I guess.”

Cutsforth, who has been Wheeler County’s DA for 18 years, said he now is facing a recall effort primarily because of his involvement in the project. The recall petition states Cutsforth “failed to adequately represent the residents of Wheeler county,” and failed “to involve the community over a pending project that will alter the character of Wheeler County.”

Cutsforth and Wheeler County Sheriff Dave Rouse both were appointed to the board of MWBH because of their positions with the county.

Rouse, Cutsforth said, resigned because of the public’s violent response to the project.

“It’s a NIMBY (not in my backyard) thing. They are just not going to let it happen here,” Cutsforth said.

Lindsay said the organization has no plans to re-site the project.

EXTRA – Outcry dooms treatment center in Wheeler County, the Oregonian May 30, 2008
EXTRA – Storm of community opposition halts plans for treatment center, AP May 31, 2008