State hospital gets outside help for admitting mentally ill people under judges’ orders

The Oregon State Hospital on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oregon State Hospital is getting help from an out-of-state expert to meet a weeks-passed deadline to start admitting people with mental illnesses for court-ordered treatment on time.

The assistance comes as part of a settlement that the state, advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon and Metropolitan Public Defender agreed to on Dec. 10 after a 19-years legal battle over delayed admissions.

The expert is contracted to produce a short-term and long-term plan to address the staffing crisis at the state hospital. Hospital administrators have argued in court that it doesn’t have the resources to take in everyone that judges order be admitted.

People unable to understand criminal charges against them or assist in their own defense are supposed to receive treatment at the hospital, allowing them to participate in the criminal justice system and understand their legal rights and responsibilities.

Court documents showed several people who should otherwise have been receiving treatment at the state hospital instead remained housed in county jails.

Following a 2002 federal order requiring the hospital to admit aid and assist patients within seven days, the state was in compliance for about 16 years, said Emily Cooper, legal director for Disability Rights Oregon. “About two, three years ago, things started to slip. So we moved for contempt,” she said.

Meanwhile, circuit court judges have found the hospital and OHA in contempt six times in the last three years for not complying with their orders.

The contempt findings indicate the state hospital, which cares for about 500 Oregonians with mental illnesses and disabilities who are court-ordered to receive treatment, failed to follow judges’ orders in Jackson and Washington counties to admit people to the Salem hospital.

Ten contempt proceedings initiated over the past three months remain open, with five in Marion County. Judges use contempt proceedings to enforce court orders that weren’t being obeyed. Contempt isn’t considered a crime under Oregon law but can result in fines and jail time.

In light of the Covid pandemic, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman in May 2020 effectively suspended the federally required seven-day timeline for the state hospital to admit people found unfit to aid in their own defense. That order was set to expire Dec. 3, a September court filing showed.  

“A few weeks ago, we knew the state wasn’t going to get into compliance,” Cooper said. “So we started having a conversation about what is the long term solution? And we don’t know the answer to that yet, but what’s really promising is instead of litigating this, we decided to sit down, hire a neutral expert and figure out a pathway out.”

The hospital has argued in court that it has been stretched thin by a lack of resources.

Seligmann said a 24-bed unit opened Nov. 15 at the state hospital’s Junction City Campus and is full. Another 24-bed unit is planned to open at the same location in early 2022.

To address the hospital’s capacity issues, the state in December contracted with Dr. Debra A. Pinals, the medical director of behavioral health and forensic programs for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Pinals is also a clinical adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School, according to the university’s website.

“Dr. Pinals runs three state psychiatric hospitals in Michigan. What has she done in Michigan to not have that staffing crisis that we’ve seen here in Oregon?,” Cooper said. “Oregon is the only state that has called the National Guard to the state psychiatric hospital. So if not Michigan, what have the other states done to address the staffing crisis so we’re not relying on untrained but very well-meaning National Guard members?”

The settlement requires Pinals to submit a short-term plan and recommendations to U.S. District Court of Oregon by Jan. 31 for how the state hospital can comply with court orders to admit patients, according to a Dec. 17 news release. Pinals’ reports will also be released publicly.

“What we’re looking for in her initial report are two things. First, what are the short-term steps the state should be taking right now to address this problem, and two, what about an expedited admission process for those who are the most ill and waiting in jail to get transferred first?,” Cooper said. “While we’re waiting for the state capacity to open up, let’s make sure that some of the most vulnerable and the most ill get prioritized in terms of services.”

Pinals will file her recommendations for a long-term plan for the hospital to comply with judges’ orders by April 29. After both reports, Disability Rights Oregon and OHA will meet and decide whether to settle. If they don’t reach a settlement, they’ll head back to court over whether the state should be ordered to follow the recommendations. 

Until a final decision is made over Pinals’s reports, the settlement requires Disability Rights Oregon to not bring contempt proceedings against the state.

“A renewed settlement conference with Judge Beckerman on May 4, 2022, will be held to resolve any disputes relating to the report and recommendations,” hospital spokeswoman Aria Seligmann said in an email.

Cooper said she hopes they reach a settlement, and that community behavioral health services can be expanded across the state. 

“I think it is legitimate to slow admissions to hospitals when you’ve got a pandemic,” she said. “The problem with it being the sole excuse is you can still serve a lot of these folks in the community.”

Cooper said roughly half of aid and assist patients are in the state hospital for non-violent misdemeanors like trespassing. “If there were community behavioral health resources, we wouldn’t be in this predicament,” she said

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that the ten open contempt proceedings were initiated in the past three months. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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