District plans to open youth mental health treatment center

Children and teens struggling with serious mental health problems will have a new place to get treatment in Salem next year.

Salem-Keizer School District leaders have worked for months to open a day treatment center, where children as young as five would receive hours of intensive mental health care daily while still attending school.

They’re one step closer after a unanimous school board vote Tuesday night approving an agreement with private donors, who are buying a former school building north of Salem to house the program.

“We desperately need this in the Salem-Keizer area,” Superintendent Andrea Castañeda told the board ahead of the vote. “This facility is going to be a community asset.”

The center will be located at 10327 River Rd. N.E. in Salem, a former school property within the Gervais School District. The site is near the unincorporated community of Waconda.

The facility will be a public-private partnership, with mental health services provided by Portland-based Trillium Family Services, which already offers counseling in some district schools. The school district will run classes on-site for kids receiving care.

Trillium hopes to open around February 2024, depending on the speed of remodeling, and initially serve about eight students, eventually increasing capacity to 18-24 at a time, said Jay Yedziniak, Trillium’s vice president of contracting and business development.

School districts don’t typically create mental health facilities, but former district Superintendent Christy Perry took on the project based on the high need in the region.

“For a long time now schools have been asked to do all the things because that’s where students spend the majority of their time,” said Chris Moore, director of mental health and social-emotional learning for the district. But he said a “precipitous increase” in rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and behavioral problems have outpaced schools’ ability to provide the care every student needs.

“We need to leverage community,” Moore said.

A private company, which is made up of Tokarski Family, LLC, and the Larry & Jeannette Epping Family foundation, plans to buy the property for $2.5 million and lease it to the school district for five years. At that point, the district could extend the lease or purchase the property.

Trillium will handle admissions for students and won’t just serve those in the Salem-Keizer district. They plan to make it available for kids within about a one-hour radius.

The region has struggled with offering sufficient psychiatric care for kids and families, Justin Hopkins, executive director of the WIllamette Health Council, a community governing body for the region’s Medicaid provider, PacificSource. The closest operating day treatment center for young people now is in Corvallis.

Hopkins formerly worked for the Oregon Health Authority as the main regulator reviewing psychiatric day treatment programs. He said patients benefited from them but had trouble jumping through the bureaucracy to get treatment covered.

“Once folks qualified for this level of care they were typically very pleased with the outcomes,” he said.

The need for such care has increased since Covid. Hopkins said when kids who need more intensive care don’t have access to it, they end up using available resources like counseling at schools that could be better spent on prevention or helping kids with less acute needs.

“This will get the right level of care to the kids and families who really need it and this will free up services,” he said.

Teachers are optimistic about the addition. Though the center can only treat a few students, there’s hope it will help address some of the disruptive behaviors teachers contend with at schools, said Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association.

“Because their needs are so large, they have a huge impact on a school,” she said. Having appropriate treatment for students who need it will improve safety for other students and educators, while better serving high-needs kids.

“We hope our city and state will start partnering and do more of these things,” she said.

Trillium operates existing youth day treatment programs in Corvallis, Bend and The Dalles, said Chiharu Blatt, vice president of community-based services for the Willamette Valley and central Oregon.

Kids receive a minimum of five hours of treatment daily, typically including weekly family therapy, as well as medication management. Unlike in a residential program, they’d go home at night and wouldn’t receive care on the weekends.

Trillium previously operated a similar program in west Salem that served eight to 10 kids at a time, but had to close it in 2017 due to real estate changes with the building they operated in, Blatt said.

Referrals would come from a mental health provider, and the program could be a resource for kids getting out of the hospital or inpatient care. Stays would be short, typically around 30 days of treatment, with a goal of getting kids back into the community.

They’ll initially start with a staff of about 10 providers and add more as the program grows.

Moore said the program will create a badly-needed resource for local schools.

“It gives you hope and helps you know that you’re not alone in recognizing this is a real need for our students, and it’s not on our teachers to solve all the things,” he said.

(Disclosure: Larry Tokarski, Mountain West president, is also a co-founder of Salem Reporter.)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.