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Kotek hires Portland social worker and manager to advise her on behavioral health 

Juliana Wallace has avoided the spotlight while serving in a range of jobs that supporters say make her a good pick to help improve the state’s behavioral health system.
A young-looking woman stands in a room with what looks like tables and chairs behind her.
Juliana Wallace will advise Gov. Tina Kotek on behavioral health policy starting Sept. 5. | COURTESY GOV. TINA KOTEK'S OFFICE
August 3, 2023

This article has been updated with additional reporting. 

Gov. Tina Kotek has hired Juliana Wallace, a clinical social worker who has quietly worked for years in Portland in health care and housing programs, to serve as her new top behavioral health aide.

Kotek’s office announced Wallace’s selection on Thursday, less than a month after appointing Wallace’s predecessor, Annaliese Dolph, as director of the state Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission.  

In her new role, Wallace will spearhead Kotek’s response to problems including Oregon’s rising drug overdoses, particularly in the state’s largest county, as well as a shortage of treatment options. The position’s responsibilities include advising the governor, while coordinating staff and ensuring that state agencies, commissions and boards follow Kotek’s behavioral health agenda. Wallace’s resume spans two decades and includes working with homeless youth and management positions at large health care providers. 

Her background suggests a deep familiarity with what is happening on the streets of Portland at a time when the governor is aggressively pressuring local officials to make specific policy changes, including the naming of a joint city-county drug czar.

In a statement, Kotek said Wallace would help realize the governor’s vision of an “accessible behavioral health system that meets (Oregonians) where they are and matches them with the appropriate level of care that they need.”

Ed Blackburn, the longtime former leader of Central City Concern, told The Lund Report that Wallace’s pick indicates that Kotek wants people with a more granular knowledge of the state’s behavioral health challenges. He praised Wallace’s background for including both management positions and frontline jobs working with people with substance use disorders and serious mental illness. 

“What happens so often is that things get designed at the top and providers at the bottom don’t have the knowledge to implement them,” Blackburn said. 

Most recently, Wallace served in senior management roles at Portland social services nonprofit Central City Concern and was an adjunct professor at Portland State University. 

Wallace spent the first 10 years of her career working with homeless youth  at Portland-based Outside In, according to a news release. In that position, she developed and managed StreetRISE Project, a federally funded program that connected homeless youth with housing and behavioral health care as they entered adulthood. 

Wallace later took a management role at Oregon Health & Science University before working as the director of Services at Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland.

Her appointment by Kotek comes as state officials and insurers work out the details of how to implement federally approved changes to the Medicaid-funded Oregon Health Plan allowing it to pay for housing for low-income Oregonians, including those needing behavioral health supports. 

Blackburn said figuring out how to pay housing providers with Medicaid’s complicated billing system will be challenging. He said Wallace’s experience will help her ask the right questions to develop a system that’s usable by housing providers. 

Wallace couldn’t be reached for an interview with The Lund Report. An online search suggests she has kept a low profile while working in Oregon, rarely quoted by news outlets. 

Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland said he first met Wallace while she was volunteering for CAHOOTS, a Eugene-based program that sends trained teams to people experiencing a mental health crisis. Since then, Wallace has served on a volunteer panel that advises the city of Portland on how to improve police responses to people in crisis.   

Renaud described her as a “gentle, smart person” who is “clinically savvy” and supported by people in the recovery community. 

“This is a very good sign,” he said.

Wallace starts in her new position on September 5.

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.