Weak mental health treatment options in Oregon lead to long waits

With Oregon State Hospital at full capacity, Oregon is running out of mental health care options for people who can’t participate in their own trials, leading to heartbreaking cases

ASTORIA, Ore. — From the Clatsop County Jail, 32-year-old Kenny Benton awaits treatment for his mental illness.

Benton is currently considered too mentally ill to aid and assist him in his criminal trial. Instead, he attends weekly fitness to proceed hearings where lawyers, doctors, family members and a judge decide what’s next.

On January 17, Dr. Paul Guastadisegni read the findings of his latest assessment of Benton in prison.

“Mr. Benton, in my opinion, is currently impaired due to mental health issues and is unable to help and assist and is in need of restorative services,” Guastadisegni told Judge Beau Peterson. “If left untreated, his mental health would continue to deteriorate.”

As Dr. Guastadisegni shared his diagnosis of schizophrenia, anxiety, and related mental disorders, Benton cut him off.

“No, I’m not schizophrenic in any way, shape or form – I need to be reassessed if I am,” Benton said. “I am not a danger to myself or anyone else, no matter what. [the doctor] decided, it’s not true.”

Despite the medical recommendation and a federal order requiring the prompt transport and treatment of defendants like Benton with mental illness, Benton has now waited nearly two months for mental health care.

Through our Uncommitted series, KGW explored troubling shortcomings in Oregon’s mental health system, showing how the state’s high standards can make it difficult to impose involuntary mental health treatment.

As Benton’s case shows, even when a person in prison is referred for treatment at Oregon State Hospital or accepts mental health care, there is often nothing available and the system shuts down.

RELATED: How high standards fuel a cycle that can cause people with serious mental illness to fail

State vs. Kenneth Benton

At the top of the virtual courtroom screen during Kenny’s fitness to prosecute hearing on January 17 was Kristen Benton, Kenny’s mother.

Kristen Benton is the newly appointed guardian of her adult son and is advocating for his release to a secure facility for mental health treatment.

She said she had spent every day for the past two months trying to find solutions for her son. Last year, she saw her mental health deteriorate at her home in Astoria.

Benton said his son was taking medication for anxiety, but his doctor’s office closed and he was unable to get his prescription refilled. Then she said he had gone into psychosis.

“He started eating raw meat. He was urinating out his bedroom window, which was definitely not him, and burning things,” she said. “He was just crazy and getting worse.”

From the living room of his Astoria home, Benton described his son as sweet, creative, funny and smart.

As Kenny’s mental health declined, Kristen Benton called County Behavioral Health Teams to come in and assess Kenny’s mental health crises three times.

However, Kenny refused treatment and mental health workers repeatedly told Kristen Benton there was nothing they could do.

In November, Kristen Benton came downstairs and found her son throwing a kitchen knife in the air.

“I called the police because I thought that knife was going to go through him,” Benton said. “They came, and this deputy made the decision that if we want to help him, we will have to file a complaint against him and we will take him to prison.”

Filing a complaint would mean a no contact order with Kristen Benton, and he couldn’t return to her home.

The deputy explained that if they took Benton to the hospital, he would likely be released and could likely be forced to live on the streets.

She said an arrest was her only option. Benton faces felony charges for unlawful use of a weapon and threatening.

“The only option to get help and have someone somewhere safe to rescue your family and save them is to be in jail,” Kristen Benton said. “And getting out of jail once you find a resource is next to impossible.”

Impossible because everyone—from judges to lawyers to doctors to families—seems to know there’s nowhere to send someone like Kenny for treatment, even while he’s in custody.

A lack of mental health care options

Nan Waller, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge who handles the mental health case, told KGW that cases of incompetence are increasing every year in Oregon.

Waller explained that more than 5,000 people a year in Oregon face similar limbo between criminal justice and behavioral health systems, and judges lack options for people who cannot help and assist in their own trials.

“I don’t think there’s any disagreement between the parties involved that we don’t have enough placements in our communities to prevent as many people as we would like to prevent from going to public hospitals. “, Waller said. said.

That’s because Oregon State Hospital — the state psychiatric treatment facility designed to treat people with serious mental illnesses — is full.

Of 699 beds in Salem and Junction City, 97% are occupied, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Each month, more than 100 people like Benton wait for a place at OSH, often as their mental health deteriorates in prison.

Oregon State is also not Mink compliant, a federal ruling requiring the OSH to admit patients on aid and support orders within seven days. Wait times currently average almost 40 days.

To comply with the Mink order, OSH releases more patients each month to free up bed space. However, with applications for admission also increasing, this only helps marginally.

So, for several weeks, Judge Peterson wrote in court orders that Benton is “awaiting transportation to OSH” and “no less restrictive placement options or appropriate community resources are available at this time.”

Benton’s case hinged on updates about her mother’s efforts.

Kristen Benton paid Dr. Guastadisegni to evaluate her son and worked with Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland to see if Unity would admit Benton under an alternative treatment plan for mental restoration.

KGW investigative reporter Evan Watson asked Kristen Benton what he said that the treatment of her son’s mental health and the current system in place depend on the efforts of passionate family members like her.

“I think it’s broken,” she said. “I think there are not enough facilities, there are not enough residential programs, there is not enough support.”

Another option?

In court on January 17, Judge Peterson and Dr. Guastadisegni debated whether a shorter hospitalization at Unity would be enough to stabilize Kenny Benton.

Again, Benton interrupted, demanding an immediate release.

“I have a daughter who had delayed speech who just started speaking recently and I missed that,” he said. “I’ve been in jail and I’m not crazy and everyone knows that.”

Kenny’s 3-year-old daughter Kaede now lives with Kristen Benton in her home.

“She’s just starting to talk,” Kristen Benton said. “She said to me, Dad is sick, and she looked out the window and she started crying. She doesn’t know where he is. She doesn’t know what happened to him.”

Benton admits that the situation is even more difficult knowing that she was the one who felt compelled to call the police.

“That’s what I had to do because I had kids here, and I was the only one doing it,” she said. “I’m still kind of alone here doing it with the justice system.”

In court, Judge Peterson asked Kenny Benton if he would agree to go to Unity for treatment.

“Do you understand the two paths this case can take at this time?” the judge said. “It’s either the public hospital or a stay at Unity voluntarily taking medication.”

At this time, Kenny Benton disagreed, again asking for his release.

“I’m going to ask you very calmly, can you reconsider based on what you know about me, really, can you just see that I’m not a crazy person, I’m not a danger to myself, or for anyone else, can you consider that and we can get together again,” Benton said.

Judge Peterson ended the fitness to proceed hearing by promising to review the full medical report and discuss options again at the next weekly hearing on January 23.

At that meeting, Judge Peterson ordered the restoration of the community through hospital care at Unity. Kenny Benton agreed to this treatment.

On Jan. 30, however, Unity said it couldn’t guarantee Kenny Benton would be admitted, halting plans, according to Kristen Benton.

Without this guarantee, Judge Peterson and Clatsop County Jail decided not to transport Kenny to Portland.

In the past week, according to Kristen Benton, Kenny was offered admission to Oregon State Hospital, but was passed over because Unity plans were in place. Now the parties involved are trying to see if he can rejoin the OSH.

For now, again, Kenny waits.

Leave a Comment