People First of Oregon
Fairview: The Closing
March 19, 2000Services for disabled need improvement
Turnover and other problems show that more oversight is needed.
Some of Oregon’s most vulnerable citizens need far more help than the state is giving them.
A four-day report published last week in the Statesman Journal detailed significant problems in the the state’s well-intentioned efforts to phase out the Fairview Training Center.
After sheltering developmentally disabled residents for 92 years, the institution closed last month. Most residents were moved into group homes, others into foster homes and apartments.
Many are well-cared for, enjoying more freedom, making new strides.
But that system of residential treatment is plagued by high turnover among low-paid workers and inadequate oversight by county and state agencies. During the past 18 months, seven developmentally disabled Oregonians have died in circumstances related to neglect, state records indicate.
That should be a warning to all Oregonians that closer attention must be paid to these facilities.
Meanwhile, thousands of other developmentally disabled Oregonians languish on the optimistically titled “waiting list.” They need training, transportation, respite care and other services. The financial savings from closing Fairview — a 275-acre campus in South Salem — won’t come close to paying the bill.
Improving care for developmentally disabled Oregonians will require a vast commitment. Officials estimate it would take $122 million every two years — half from the state, half from the federal government — to provide services to everyone who has asked for them.
Our suggestions are neither easy nor inexpensive:
• Strengthen oversight for group homes by adding caseworkers and inspectors.
At present, the state licenses homes and inspects them every two years for safety violations. Between inspections, less formal visits take place.
County mental health workers keep tabs on clients’ day-to-day welfare. However, their caseloads average 90 people in group homes and family settings.
State and county staffing often allows for little more than cursory attention to clients’ safety, not to mention their quality of life.
• Train group home workers better, and pay them a wage that will encourage them to stay on the job. In nonprofit group homes, the backbone of Oregon’s system, average pay is $8.30 an hour, with few benefits. Some employees are hired without thorough background checks. Turnover averages about 85 percent a year.
The state’s reimbursement doesn’t pay for training costs — as high as $5,000 per employee. Yet it is apparent that training workers to understand their clients’ needs is a key factor in the success of organizations such as Shangri-La.
• Formalize the waiting list and fund services to the people on it. About 4,000 Oregonians receive no services or fewer than they need; thousands more haven’t even gotten on the list. It’s poorly organized, out of date and one of the longest in the nation.
Six families are suing the state to force it to provide services such as respite and in-home care. The state is meeting with them and may voluntarily reach a settlement. Depending on the outcome of the case, Oregon could be forced to phase in community services to everyone who qualifies.
It’s important to keep trying to come up as well with ideas that won’t cost huge amounts of money. For instance, schools, churches and civic groups can reach out to the group homes that have appeared in their neighborhoods during recent years.
Knocking on a door and asking how to help is a small step, but a symbolic one. It says, “You’re part of our community, and we want to care about you.”
Another possibility: offering tuition credit at community colleges or universities for students while they work in group homes. In addition to providing a greater pool of workers, this would give these students a greater understanding of the day-to-day challenges faced by many Oregonians.
These suggestions come at a time when tax-cutting measures have strained state and county budgets. Schools, prisons, roads, parks, the environment and other needs are jockeying for the same pot of funds.
Mental health care — too often a low priority in state government — must get more attention. Not only must legislators understand and care about this issue, but ordinary citizens must step up as well.
This article was published in the Salem Statesman Journal,