Chasse case helps spur creation of mental health crisis center

From the Oregonian, July 2 2009

On the day Multnomah County commissioners awarded the county’s largest settlement ever to the family of a mentally ill man who died in police custody, the board voted to move forward with a mental health crisis center that some believe could have saved the man’s life.

The crisis center will fill a hole left when 2003 budget cuts closed a similar center housed at Providence Medical Center. Since then, those experiencing a mental health crisis often end up in one of two places: jail or a hospital emergency room.

James P. Chasse Jr., the man who died in the back of patrol car in 2006, has become the face of why this system doesn’t work.

“The most obvious gap is the lack of a facility where police can take someone who is either a danger to themselves or others,” said county Chairman Ted Wheeler. “If police take somebody to the hospital, we have been told they can wait up to eight hours to be served, and if you’re acting out because of mental health issues what you need is appropriate mental health services, not a jail cell.”

Mental health advocates and county and city officials have long talked about opening such a center, even convening a task force during former Mayor Tom Potter’s tenure.

But Chasse’s death and the ensuing civil lawsuit brought by his family pushed the need to the forefront. Commissioners voted 4-0 today to approve a record $925,000 settlement and end the county’s part in the federal suit.

County attorney Agnes Sowle said the settlement doesn’t suggest wrongdoing by the county, but was a “good business decision for the county and for the taxpayers.”

Wheeler said he was grateful that Chasse’s family agreed with the county, allowing officials to focus on improving mental health services.

The 16-bed crisis center — to be funded with county, city, state and federal dollars — will take those suffering a mental health breakdown such as suicidal or violent thoughts, hallucinations and severe anxiety.

“The fact that Jim Chasse suffered from schizophrenia and was acting in a manner hostile to the police called out for the need,” Wheeler said. “A community of this size should have appropriate services.”

The center will provide for up to 10 days of assessment and treatment, monitor medication and come up with a plan for patients once they leave the center, said Joanne Fuller, director of the county Department of Human Services.

Treatment at the crisis center will cost less than a hospital stay, but also help reduce the times that police must care for people who are acting out because of mental illness, Fuller said.

The county will house the center on a floor of the David P. Hooper Center operated by the nonprofit Central City Concern. That agency is relocating some of its services to the old Rose Quarter Ramada, and the county is paying the agency $1 million toward the renovation of the motel.

The city and county have pledged to pay the $3 million in annual operating costs of the crisis center and the Portland Development Commission has set aside $2 million to redevelop the Hooper site. The state also will pitch in additional money if needed. A third of the center’s operating costs will come from federal Medicare reimbursements.

The center could open as early as 2011.

It’s something Fuller said she has pushed for since becoming director in 2007.

“We have known for a long time that we’ve needed to have this kind of center and that we have a hole in our system,” she said. “It feels really great that this is going to happen.”

Mental health advocates say it is a long time coming.

“If Chasse had been taken somewhere like this rather than jail, he might still be alive,” said Terri Walker, board president of the National Alliance on Mental Health Multnomah.

Still, Walker said the new center doesn’t go far enough. In the end, it’s still for people in crisis, she said, but doesn’t address the needs of people who are on the verge of crisis and find it hard to get help in Multnomah County.

“I hear from family members whose loved ones can’t get help until they have to be a danger to themselves or others,” she said. “People are told they have to be naked standing on top of a bridge before you can get help. As long as we think like that in this county, people are going to be in danger.”

Fuller agreed that the county has a long way to go to meet the mental health needs of its residents. “At some point, we need to do more,” she said. “But this is a good start.”

For many, Chasse’s death proved to be the wake-up call.

“It’s a horrible tragedy,” Fuller said. “James Chasse’s death did mean that there was a face on and issue like this and does catalyze people to make changes.”