A recent investigation by The Oregonian found “that county employees had received reports of serious neglect or abuse” at what the newspaper describes as the city’s “premier mental health facility,” the Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Northeast Portland. These reports began to come in “within months of its opening in 2017.” In 16 cases “a police report should have been filed but none was found.”
This scandal fits a wider pattern that I have been writing about for several years. In day care centers, prisons and, now, mental health facilities people who have a legal obligation to watch for abuse are failing to do so. As I noted in a blog more than a year ago, laws that we often think of as focused on child abuse are, in fact, designed to protect vulnerable people more generally. Section 419B.005 of Oregon’s legal code sets standards for care and extends these to all forms of abuse and neglect. This state statute compliments 42 USC 1983, part of the federal legal code. Together, they make protection from abuse a civil right.
It offers little reassurance that once the cases were uncovered a spokesman for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office told The Oregonian “thankfully that number (16) is relatively low compared to what we fear we may find.”
This is a good moment to remind everyone that Oregon has very clear laws on the reporting of abuse and neglect. For people in certain professions – including just about anyone who works in a mental health facility – there is a legal obligation to report even suspected abuse or neglect. This obligation, and the list of the professions where it applies, is laid out in very clear terms by the Oregon Department of Human Services (see link below).
Speaking as a Portland attorney, Oregonians also need to understand the full range of legal remedies available to them. When someone is denied their rights or proper care cases can be brought in the civil as well as the criminal courts. The civil system offers those who have been wronged a chance to obtain justice even when the criminal system either cannot or will not move forward.
The larger question raised by the Unity Center case is why variations on the same theme keep appearing in the news every few months. Mandatory reporting obligations are well-known, and yet time after time we see media reports documenting either the failure of people on the front-line to report abuse, or the failure of officials higher up the chain to act on reports once they receive them. That this is true in both prisons and day care centers, in schools and mental care facilities raises troubling questions. Why do so many people seem either unaware of their obligation to report abuse, or reluctant to act on it? Why do the officials who are supposed to receive these reports consistently fail to investigate them? We owe the media a vote of thanks for bringing these issues to public notice. But we should be asking our political and community leaders why these problems keep resurfacing.
The Oregonian: Police should have been alerted to 16 cases of abuse at Portland mental health facility, investigation says
Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: 42 US Code 1983
Oregon Department of Human Services: How to Report Abuse and Neglect
Oregon Department of Human Services: Mandatory Reporting