MHAP opposes proposed rule changes by Office of Equity and Inclusion

Delivered 7/24/2013 to Cheryl Peters, Oregon Health Authority’s Office of Equity and Inclusion

The Mental Health Association of Portland, a trainer of Peer Support Specialists and an independent advocate representing persons with mental illness and addiction, offers the following testimony on the proposed rules for Non-Traditional Health Care Workers, specifically the rules’ effect on Peer Support Specialists, Peer Wellness Specialists and Recovery Mentors who possess lived experience within the criminal justice system.

READ – Background:
READPublic Hearing on Exclusions of Non-Traditional Healthcare Workers 7/22

The Mental Health Association of Portland OPPOSES the Criminal Background Check proposal by the Oregon Health Authority’s Office of Equity and Inclusion.

The message “recovery is possible” is the integral entry point for every recovery success, and it rests upon a framework of shared experience. For persons contemplating recovery, it is essential there are role models who can say, genuinely and credibly, “This is possible. I’ve been where you’ve been, and you, too, can achieve this.” Women need other women among their wellness models; African Americans need people of color; GLBTQ people need others of diverse sexuality.

In no case is this more important than for people with experience in the criminal justice system. Unless a person has a lived understanding of the realities of incarceration — the language and history, the rules and restrictions, the day-to-day experience of life behind bars — they cannot say to the ex-prisoner, “I’ve been there, and I made it; so can you.”

To disallow persons with a criminal background in mentorship roles undercuts the very reason peer health care workers exist in the first place. The single outstanding characteristic of a Peer Support Specialist or Recovery Mentor is their experience of “having been there.” It is the one attribute that qualifies them, as no others, to communicate wellness and recovery to clients. Remove that and there is no reason to have such workers at all.

Furthermore, like it or not, the reality is that criminal backgrounds are hardly unusual among those in recovery (though criminal behavior among persons who achieve measurable sobriety is vanishingly small). It is so common, in fact, that to proscribe this element would reduce the number of candidates to an infinitesimal absurdity.

Ask any jailer: “What percentage of persons coming to jail are drunk, loaded or affected by mental illness?” They will tell you, without hesitation or exception, it’s near 100%.

Ask people in jail who desire recovery from mental illness, alcoholism or addiction: “Did you do your crimes clean and sober?” You’ll get a uniform scoff confirming you don’t understand anything.

Mental illness, alcoholism and addiction are primary causes of crime — not secondary or ancillary, primary. To reduce crime, we must attack the cause. But we can only do so by forming a health care system inclusive of those who have been where the client is, who can communicate the message of possibility: “I made it; so can you.”

The proposal by the Office of Equity and Inclusion expresses not only a lack of understanding of the needs of persons in recovery, but contempt for their pursuit of wellness, stability and engagement.

Recovery is the least expensive, most effective method of crime prevention. Support for peer workers is key to engagement and recovery. Intentionally placing needless barriers in this process endangers all Oregonians.

We believe this proposal compromises the integrity of this work and serves to stigmatize persons who are open about their struggles, which often include a history with the criminal justice system.

We do not object to criminal background checks per se. Background checks are a reasonable requirement — as the legal responsibility of potential employers, not the state. Employers are the proper authorities to conduct pre-employment record checks. For the state to co-opt a role that has always belonged to employers would be a clear message from the State of Oregon that peers require additional scrutiny beyond that required of any other population, including state employees — an oppressive, nonsensical and completely unnecessary message of exclusion, at cross-purposes with equity, common sense, and better health in Oregon.

The Mental Health Association of Portland therefore asks you to eliminate this unneeded barrier to employment for people in recovery.