Oregon drug treatment cuts: a lot to lose


That’s the day the state took away her blue-eyed baby girl, Lillian Rose.

The 2-month-old, panting and bright red from an untreated respiratory infection, had nearly died under the cocaine-hazed watch of her mother, Melissa Wolff.

Wolff took her first drink at 12, her first puff of weed at 13 and her first hit of meth at 16. By 17 she lived on Portland’s downtown streets, and by 18 she was pregnant.

But when she looked in the mirror and saw the image of her own mother — a meth addict who had abandoned Wolff and her three sisters to foster care — Wolff knew she had to get clean. She was 19.

Two days after she lost her daughter, Wolff entered Portland’s Letty Owings Center, a publicly funded residential drug treatment program for women and their young children. Thirty days later, the state let Lillian Rose come live with her at the center.

Numbers mean everything to addicts in recovery. The number of children they’ve lost to their addiction. The number of friends who’ve died. The number of times they’ve tried to get clean. And above all, the numbers for the month, day and year they last used.

They say if your clean date isn’t the most important number in your life, you’ll get loaded again. For the estimated 258,000 Oregonians battling drug and alcohol addictions, July 1 may become another milestone number.

That’s the day the state will stop funding adult residential alcohol and drug treatment if the cut in Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s budget passes.

The state provides three-fourths of the money — $15 million annually — for Oregon’s residential treatment and gets a $9 million federal match.

The big picture

• 258,045: Number of Oregonians who suffer from substance abuse or dependence
• 64,500: Number of Oregonians who get publicly funded treatment each year
• 5,361: Number of Oregon adults who received residential drug treatment during fiscal 2007-08
• 993: Number of pregnant women who entered publicly funded residential treatment in fiscal 2007-08 in Oregon
• 369: Number of children who were admitted to residential treatment with a parent in fiscal 2007-08
• $5.93 billion: How much untreated substance abuse costs Oregon each year in health care, lost earnings, law enforcement, criminal justice and social welfare
• $2.7 million: Monthly savings in foster care costs because of clients who received residential or outpatient treatment as a condition of getting their children back from the Department of Human Services
• 45th: Oregon’s rank nationally for funded treatment access per capita

Sources: Oregon Department of Human Services, Multnomah Department of County Human Services

When Kulongoski announced that all of the money for Oregon’s 476 state-funded adult residential beds would be cut, Salem insiders and nonprofit groups considered it a ploy to pressure lawmakers into passing a beer tax increase to fund treatment. The governor supported expansion of drug and alcohol treatment just two years before. And everyone knew legislators would overhaul his budget.

But that was when the expected shortfall for the 2009-11 budget was $2 billion. Some estimates now peg the number at $5 billion.

“When the governor proposed the budget cuts, everyone believed this could be fixed,” says Joanne Fuller, director of the Multnomah Department of County Human Services. “Now that the magnitude of the hole in the state budget is so huge, you begin to worry that, in fact, it isn’t going to be fixed.”


That’s how many women Nancy Anderson turned away the first year she opened the Letty Owings Center because she didn’t have beds to treat them. That was 20 years ago, when only one other residential treatment center that took women and their young children operated in the state. To date, she’s helped 1,191 mothers get clean and reunite with their children and saw to it that 207 babies were delivered drug-free by women who entered treatment pregnant.

Few know better than Anderson what life was like for serious addicts and their families before residential treatment. She fled Iowa for Oregon to escape a family of physically abusive alcoholics. She fought off her own alcohol addiction — 27 years clean — and then detoxed her youngest sister, a drug-addicted mother of a little boy who couldn’t get treatment in a center without losing her son.

Anderson is a stocky native Midwesterner with a crown of nearly black hair and blood-red nails. The 62-year-old is gruff and cusses a lot in a voice deep and husky from smoking for two-thirds of her life. Yet earlier this month, Anderson found her eyes unexpectedly brimming with tears. She heard at a meeting with officials from Multnomah County, which divvies up state money for five residential drug treatment centers, that programs such as hers would probably have to stop taking new clients into state-funded beds before June 30.

State money pays for 18 children’s beds and 25 of the center’s 27 adult beds. The county pays for the remaining two. About $1.1 million of its $1.7 million budget comes from the state.

“I think I am out of denial now,” Anderson says. “I think this is really going to happen. I’m having a really hard time with it.”


Four babies born. Four babies sent to foster care. Three of them will never come home.

The last baby, Natalie, a sickly little girl born two months early, is Trish Tindall’s final chance at motherhood.

“Part of me is dead since my kids are gone,” Tindall says. “Natalie is the last baby I can have. I want to get clean and get my daughter back.”

A month after giving birth last December, Tindall checked into Project Network in Portland, a residential drug treatment program geared toward African American women with young children, though it serves women of any race.

Tindall’s sparsely furnished room in Project Network’s flamingo-colored building gives testimony to all that gets lost to addiction.

She has almost nothing of her own — just a faded flowered bedspread and a few knickknacks. Photos of her missing children decorate the refrigerator. Handwritten notes are tacked to the wall. “God loves you,” says the one in the kitchen. “One day at a time you will get back your life,” says the one above her bed.

From a rickety chair at a rickety table, the 27-year-old tells a story familiar to anyone who has worked with drug-addicted women.

“They say secrets keep you loaded,” she says. “To me, one of the hardest things, I am afraid of being judged.”

Tindall, a tiny woman with a vibrant smile, was sexually and physically abused before she was old enough to go to school. Her mother and grandmother used drugs. Tindall was removed from her mother and eventually adopted.

But a new home and new parents couldn’t erase the past. Tindall started doing drugs as a teenager and before long was a full-on meth addict. She got into abusive relationships and didn’t think she was worth any better.

Tindall says she kept having babies because she was trying to get whole. Each time she got pregnant, she’d vow to get clean, to not be her mother. But each failure sent her deeper into her addiction.

Tindall has been in and out of treatment. She knows how it looks. But with no insurance, no car, no job and no safe place to stay, Tindall had nowhere else to go but state-funded treatment.

“I feel because we’re addicts, we get looked upon like we’ll never change,” she says. “But that’s not true. Nobody should be given up on, because life is hard. Life is so hard.”


That’s how many months a woman has to get herself together once a judge gives custody of her child to the state. Otherwise, under federal law, the mother loses her parental rights permanently.

And that’s why most women enter the state-funded residential treatment centers.

Outpatient treatment doesn’t work for people with serious addictions, says Karen Wheeler, addictions program administrator for the state Department of Human Services. Residential treatment puts heavy users in a safe, drug-free environment, forces them to deal with things they’ve used drugs to numb and teaches them to cope. They “are unable to get clean without that level of treatment,” Wheeler says.

Outpatient programs won’t be able to absorb them anyway, she says, because they would also take drastic cuts under the governor’s budget.

The treatment isn’t mandatory, and the women can leave whenever they want. The state rates success by the percentage of people who complete treatment. It doesn’t have the money to track them after they’ve finished, Wheeler says. Statewide, about two-thirds who enter residential treatment finish.

The waiting list for residential drug treatment statewide is about four months. If a mother can’t get into a treatment center in time, her hopes of getting her children out of foster care disappear. And often, so does her motivation for getting clean.

State cuts for residential drug treatment will funnel more children into the foster care system, advocates say.

Already, more than 62 percent of children in foster care are there because of parental drug use, according to the governor’s office.

If the residential treatment beds close, costs would rise for incarceration and social services, says Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, co-chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee. For every dollar spent on treatment, the state Department of Human Services estimates savings of $4 to $7 in other costs.

“As a person who has been a counselor for 45 years, I will do everything in my power to provide opportunities for those dealing with drug and alcohol addictions,” Carter says. “But the reality is, no program will escape as we try to make it through these tumultuous financial times.”


In an apartment all their own in a drug-free complex in Northeast Portland, Melissa Wolff coos at the baby she calls Lilly Bug and marvels at the new tooth that’s broken in since she graduated from Letty Owings less than a month ago. “She’s really bonded to me,” Wolff says, and then plants a kiss atop her daughter’s head. “I don’t know, we just love each other. I feel very hopeful.”

It’s not easy. Wolff must make ends meet on a $438-a-month welfare check until she gets a job and attends outpatient treatment four days a week.

But she thinks back on how far she’s come. How she resisted treatment. How she didn’t know how to hold her own child. How she knows only one friend from her street days who isn’t dead or in jail.

She says she’s not looking for sympathy. “Boohoo, I got beat up as a kid, I got raped,” she says. “But no mom does this to their kids by choice. We just need help. Some of us wouldn’t be here today without help.”

Then, for the first time in a long time, she talks about her future with certainty that she has one. She’s now 20 and looks forward to college. She thinks she wants to be an accountant.

After all, she’s good with numbers.