More Links in Health Programs

State Will Shut Down Youth Ward of Hospital

27 Jan 2005

By Michelle Roberts

Summary: Oregon human services officials say patients will leave the adolescent unit in Salem, where sex abuse occurred in the past.

The Oregon Department of Human Services announced Wednesday that the state will shut down the adolescent treatment unit at the Oregon State Hospital, where as many as a dozen young patients were sexually abused by psychiatric aides from 1989 to 1994.

The abuses were brought to light last September in a two-day series in The Oregonian that disclosed that hospital officials and their supervisors -- most still employed in state government -- did little to stop the abuses and often failed to report suspected cases immediately to police and child welfare workers, as required by state law.

The articles also said the hospital in Salem had taken only limited steps to prevent abuse in the years since.

"I'm ecstatic about the closure," said Mary Kay Gonzales, 30, who lived inside Ward 40, where adolescents are housed, from ages 12 to 18. During that time, she was molested by two state psychiatric aides.

"I'm so relieved to know that no one else will have to live through what I did there," she said Wednesday.

In response to the series, Gov. Ted Kulongoski empaneled a group of experts to investigate procedures on Ward 40. In an eight-page report made public last month, the group found "significant gaps" in abuse-reporting procedures, "incomplete communication" among state agencies and "inadequate training of (state hospital) staff."

Panel members said they did not find a recent pattern of sexual abuse on Ward 40, even though the head of the DHS Office of Investigations and Training said in September that she believes hospital workers still are not consistently reporting abuses on the ward.

Kulongoski said Wednesday that he supports the decision to close Ward 40. All adolescents will be moved by March 1.

"One of my priorities since taking office has been to work . . . to improve the quality of mental health and support services for Oregon's children and families," the governor said. "Part of that effort has included a focus on moving children and adolescents out of the institutional care provided by the Oregon State Hospital and into community-based programs and facilities."

Children's Farm Home

Gary Weeks, DHS director, said 12 of the remaining 16 adolescent patients at the hospital will be moved to the Children's Farm Home near Corvallis. Operated by Trillium Family Services, the Farm Home is a secure community facility designed to serve children and adolescents.

The remaining four teens will be either discharged or moved into other private facilities.

Since 1976, hundreds of mentally ill children have been sent to live behind the brick walls of McKenzie Hall, a two-story fortress that houses Ward 40 on the northwest edge of the hospital's 148-acre campus.

The adolescent unit was one of the few places in the state that served emotionally disturbed children ages 14 to 18. Many were wards of the state.

Former patients described Ward 40 as intimidating and lonely, absent color and love. So many kids were on suicide watch that the corridor was lined with their mattresses at night so staff could keep an eye on them.

One state worker called the unit a "collection of suffering."

Children arrived at Ward 40 expecting to stay a month or two. Yet many languished there for hundreds of days, sometimes years, at great taxpayer expense -- today, $30,700 per child per month. Over the past three decades, hundreds of children have been reared by doctors and psychiatric aides in a place where razor wire divides the playground from an exercise lot for criminally insane adults.

Move a national trend

Across the nation, states are moving from institutionalizing mentally ill children to creating smaller, homelike facilities that are cheaper and more effective.

Weeks said moving adolescents from the hospital has been a long-standing goal of his department. He said the department began phasing out Oregon State Hospital children's wards in 2001, when it sent youngsters ages 5 to 11 to other facilities.

"This is a good opportunity for us to finish what we started in 2001, finding community treatment environments that are more well-suited to the needs of children and adolescents," Weeks said Wednesday.

Bob Nikkel, head of the state's mental health and addictions division, said workers will try to determine whether any of the adolescents could be discharged in the next five weeks.

Nikkel said the change will not involve additional costs for the state.

"We've worked out all the finances," he said. "It's a zero-sum game."

In addition to the Children's Farm Home, Trillium Family Services operates Waverly Children's Home and the Parry Center, both in Portland, and a new community-based treatment program in Bend. Trillium also plans to build an adolescent treatment center in Portland, said Chris Bouneff, a Trillium spokesman.

A Senate panel last week opened hearings into problems at the 121-year-old facility, including discussion of whether the entire state hospital should be torn down and replaced with a new hospital, community-based programs or a combination.

Concerns about conditions at the hospital -- one of the oldest, most dilapidated state mental institutions in the United States -- have grown in recent months after reports of patient abuse, short staffing and crumbling facilities. More than 740 adult patients reside there.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who is leading the effort to reform the hospital, said he supports the closure of Ward 40 and said it may be a "harbinger of things to come."

Patrick O'Neill of The Oregonian contributed to this story.

© 2005 Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Oregonian.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top