By David F. Ashton
Building a new eight-bed secure residential treatment facility on the southern edge their neighborhood had worried folks in the Ardenwald-Johnson Creek neighborhood area ever since the plans were announced more than a year ago.
That unease didn’t slow or stop the project — and now, the “Johnson Creek Secure Residential Treatment Facility” at 2808 S.E. Balfour Street is about to begin operation.
On October 8th, ColumbiaCare Services, a non-profit company that provides mental health and residential services for citizens of Oregon and Idaho, held an open house at the new facility which many neighbors call the “Balfour House”.
“We’re providing a comfortable residence and rehabilitation services, as well as medication services for people who have serious mental illness, and who in the past have committed serious crimes,” explained Andrew Axer, Facility Administrator, at the event.
Specifically, we learned, the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB) refers to such individuals as those “with mental illness who have committed a crime and have been found ‘guilty except for insanity’.”
“The clients who come here generally have spent quite a long time in the hospital, receiving treatment,” Axer explained. “Before they can come to a facility like ours, they need to demonstrate that they are stable. They have to be able to be trusted by the PSRB — which is primarily interested in protecting public safety. When they meet the board’s requirement for discharge, they receive what is called ‘Conditional Release’.”
Axer compared this to parole in the criminal justice system. “They come here under the very stringent expectations of the PSRB. They need to attend a certain number of groups, participate in individual and group counseling, take medications, and subject themselves to urine analysis tests. They are subject to room searches. They cannot leave the house without staff supervision. If they leave the house, they have to be carefully assessed for the risk — whatever risks we might consider relevant to this client.”
Asked if he thought the facility was a security risk for the neighborhood, the fear which had made the facility controversial locally, Axer responded, “No, I don’t think that it will cause any safety issues. Of course, there is a perception that makes people very uncomfortable — that people at this house have committed serious felonies. But, they were mentally unstable at the time.”
Axer elaborated, “I would say that people have their reasons to be concerned, as long as they really don’t know who is living in their neighborhood. Once they get to know each other, I think some of the concerned will decrease. I think the neighbors have also been concerned about the size of the house, here in a predominantly residential neighborhood. But our main task is not to be a nuisance to the community; but instead to be a good neighbor.”
Pointing to the ten-page “Good Neighbor Agreement” — with a six page appendix — to which the facility’s management, the neighborhood association leadership, and local law enforcement agencies had signed off, Axer added, “We have every intention of following both the spirit and the letter of the agreement.”
The facility’s Assistant Administrator, Michael Donohue, said its clients will be under 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week supervision. “There are least two employees here on-site at all times.”
State Representative Carolyn Tomei was one of the dignitaries who came by to visit the facility. “I think this could be a beautiful addition to the neighborhood. Some of the neighbors are concerned. But, I think when people see it in operation, their fears will be allayed.”
“I think the facility is absolutely wonderful,” commented Jo Hamilton who said she lives a half block away, after touring the house. “It feels calming and open; it’s a very nice atmosphere. My concern is that I don’t know a lot about who the patients are. But I’m okay and I will be okay.”
The City of Milwaukie’s Police Chief, Bob Jordan, said he thought that the Good Neighbor Agreement addresses many of the community’s concerns. “I look forward to thier having a nice, quiet presence here.”
Not all visitors were as sanguine. Tracey Moist said her family lives “very near” the facility, and she said she still has some concerns. “I have four young children. I keep being told the residents here are fine. I want to have faith in them, but I’m still scared. We are doing everything we can to protect ourselves and our family.”
The security at their home has been strengthened, she reported — putting extra locks on the windows, for example. “This is the first neighborhood that I’ve lived in where, until now, I’ve felt safe and free. I’m wondering why they would want to put a place like this in neighborhood with 80 kids, near a school. I don’t say this to be rude. I know these people have to have a place to go.”
Having met the staff and toured facility, Moist said it’s helped her “relax a little bit. But, that doesn’t mean I’ve changed my feelings on this. I’m still worried.”