Hospitals help criminalize mentally ill, report says
A prominent advocacy group has called on six Portland-area hospitals to change policies that lead to homeless or mentally ill people being jailed for trespassing on hospital grounds — often because they are seeking help.
The group Disability Rights Oregon on Tuesday, June 18, released a 37-page report detailing its analysis of 142 trespass arrests at local hospitals over a one-year period starting in the summer of 2017.
Among the group's findings:
•Of those arrested, at least 72% were homeless, 35% were people of color, and 30% apparently had a mental health-related concern.
•Only 26% of them seemed violent or threatening.
•Of those arrested, 109 involved people seeking care or who were being discharged from care.
•More than half of the individuals arrested for trespass (52%) were done so as a result of calls to police by Legacy Health-affiliated facilities, including Legacy Emanuel (34%), Legacy Good Samaritan (8%) and the Unity Center for Behavioral Health (10%).
•The other health systems contributing to trespass arrests were Providence Health (22%), Oregon Health & Science University (20%) and Portland Adventist (8%).
The report, which labels the people in the reports "unwanted," called on hospitals to also work better with patients being discharged. It also seeks better funding for programs to divert people from jail who are struggling with mental illness.
"When seeking care, no person should be called 'unwanted,' this is a matter of basic human dignity," said Jake Cornett, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon. "This could happen to any Oregonian with mental health needs, but people from communities of color or people who don't have homes are most at risk. When health care providers call the police on a person in crisis, it's the first step on the path to criminalizing mental illness. This has a profoundly devastating and lasting impact on an individual's life."
The results, according to the group, jibe with a recent study of the New York-based Council of State Governments Justice Center, which found in a survey of 12 Oregon counties that the same small number of people responsible for a large portion of jail bookings also are frequently admitted to hospitals.
"They visit the hospitals to look for help, but sometimes it is the hospital that sends them to jail," according to the report.
The group's research had an effect even before it was released. When it reached out to local hospitals to find out how many people had been excluded, trespassed or barred from their premises, it found that OHSU had 68 people excluded, 52 of them permanently; Legacy had 146 people excluded; and Providence had issued 114 exclusions in the past three years. Providence then implemented a new process and rescinded 75 of those exclusions.
Providence issued a statement attributed to Dr. Robin Henderson, Providence Medical Group's chief executive of behavioral health, saying that based on the disability group's research, "We have significantly reviewed and revised our processes and procedures ... As (Disability Rights Oregon) indicated in its report, we are facing a societal issue and we are committed to working together, as a community, for solutions."
Providence has continued to see the proportion of patients with behavioral health needs in its emergency department grow over the past year — up to 8.4% — even as the number of overall emergency visits declined.
OHSU, meanwhile, defended its outcomes as based on the best-known practices and training. "At OHSU, law enforcement action is only invoked after all other options are exhausted or if there is an imminent threat to the safety of the patient or others. The expectation at OHSU is that our officers will do everything possible to avoid an arrest when interacting with patients, employees, students, volunteers and visitors."
Similarly, Legacy officials said its policies are focused on preventing violent or "unruly" behavior: "Our priority is to provide a safe environment for patients, families and visitors in order for staff to provide the care that is needed."
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