Multnomah County Mental Health Program Again In Turmoil, With Staff Forced Out, Investigation Launched

Early this year Multnomah County forced out four employees responsible for helping mentally ill people stay out of jail, after an internal investigation revealed that staff often failed to meet with clients, misused taxpayer money and created a toxic environment, with one person even running a business on the side, according to county documents obtained by The Lund Report.

The team’s direct supervisor, who tipped off human resources, is still on the job. But his manager, Neal Rotman, senior manager of the community mental health program, was put on paid administrative leave at the beginning of the month, according to a letter obtained by the Lund Report.

County officials declined to comment about the investigation or allegations against Rotman, citing county privacy policy during an ongoing personnel matter.

This is not the first time Rotman’s name has surfaced in connection with a county mental health investigation. Last year a county audit blasted his program for failing to provide hundreds of mentally ill people with taxpayer-funded housing and treatment, and a Portland Tribune report found that Rotman had misled county commissioners about the reasons behind a budget shortfall.

Management problems in the mental health division have festered for years.

An investigation in 2018 and 2019 over allegations that county officials had failed to address abuse complaints at Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Southeast Portland led to the firing last year of David Hidalgo, Rotman’s supervisor. Joan Rice, the quality manager for the mental health division, was forced out at the same time.

Hidalgo was replaced last March by Ebony Clarke, who said Friday she was very concerned about the problems with the mental health court staff and its failure to help clients struggling with severe mental illness. 

“This is one of our most vulnerable populations -- they rely on us,” Clarke said. “This can never happen again. It’s appalling.”

The investigations against the mental health jail diversion staff were conducted by county officials. The accusations, findings and settlement agreements are outlined in nearly 190 pages of reports, notes and emails obtained by The Lund Report from the county in a public records request. The documents show that the investigations were conducted last year and that team members signed settlement agreements with the county early this year. The agreements show they agreed to resign instead of being fired and would not sue the county, which, in exchange agreed it would give them neutral references and would not challenge any unemployment benefit claims.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury told The Lund Report that she learned of the problems only two weeks ago. 

“I was sickened and furious,” Kafoury said in an email. “It’s evermore apparent that we have to fundamentally change the culture and structure of the Mental Health Division.”

Kafoury said she directed Peggy Brey, the county’s Interim chief operating officer, to launch an “outside investigation” of the division and to come up with an improvement plan.

The investigation started this week, Kafoury said. “I’ve also asked for a larger analysis to determine all of the operational changes we need to make to this division.”

Kafoury said she had confidence in Brey’s ability as an investigator, following her inquiry into Hidalgo, Rice and the problems related to Unity. Kafoury also praised Clarke, saying the pair would create a reliable, effective division.

“And to those seeking mental health services from the County: I know that you deserve better,” Kafoury said. “I am committed to creating an organization you can trust. An organization that supports your recovery and your health.”

A Team Of Four

The four people who were forced out included three case managers and one mental health consultant who worked with the Mental Health Court, one of four institutions designed to support people with substance abuse or mental health problems to keep them out of jail or prison. They each had a caseload of 15 to 20 people and reported to Bill Osborne. Their salaries ranged from nearly $61,000 to more than $79,000.

They were assigned to meet with clients, ensure they were seeing their probation officers, accompany them to court and, if necessary, help them get housing, food and medication.

The documents showed they often failed on all fronts. The county declined to provide contact information for the employees and they could not be reached for comment.

The investigation alleged that a case manager who had worked for the county since 2016 failed to see clients as often as she claimed she did. Investigators reviewed 64 entries on her workday calendar and found she could only account for her whereabouts on five days, the documents say.

Investigators also discovered she had a personal coaching business that she didn’t report as required, the documents show. In the summer and fall of 2017, colleagues staged a sting operation by setting up a fake email account and asking for coaching at a time when her work calendar said she was seeing a client, according to documents. The case manager agreed but did not change her calendar.

It’s not clear why nothing was done about it at the time.

A note from the worker said she only used her calendar as a reminder and not to document her whereabouts.

She resigned on Jan. 31 as part of a settlement dated Feb. 5.

Another case manager, who’d been with the county since 2013, was investigated following accusations that he mistreated clients, falsified records and misused taxpayer money. The findings say all of his financial records were accurate but investigators found that he was “condescending and belittling” and that he mocked clients and was abrasive. The documents say officials uncovered instances in which he failed to help one client get medication and another with food after that person’s food stamps ran out.

He resigned Feb. 18 under a settlement signed March 5.

A mental health consultant in the group who had worked for the county since 2012 was accused of being racist. During the investigation, a coworker of Japanese origin said he had made discriminatory comments about her, saying she had an accent and ate “weird stuff.” Another person said he made a disparaging comment about Africa. A former probation officer blamed him for creating a “culture of toxicity.”

Clarke said he resigned voluntarily.

The last person forced out was a case manager who’d worked with the Mental Health Court for two years. She went on maternity leave last July, which led to the investigations, the documents say. The person who replaced her reported to Osborne that clients grew angry when the new case manager wanted to see them in person.

Investigators found that the employee couldn’t account for 29 out of 31 work days they reviewed. She also didn’t have documentation for 12 of 16 transactions supposedly made on behalf of clients, a report said. The case managers had access to vouchers and gift cards to help clients with food and housing. 

She signed a settlement agreement on Feb. 18, the same day she resigned.

Sullivan-Springhetti said that investigators who looked into the employees found that a total of $150 had been misappropriated and that 10 clients had been harmed. She did not provide details.

Moving Towards More Oversight

Three months after the case manager went on maternity leave, Osborne started investigating his staff, emails show. On Oct. 7, the four staff members were put on paid administrative leave. The investigation ran through December.

The documents indicate that the problems had festered for months. It’s not clear how much Osborne knew about his staff and whether he had ever checked up on them. Osborne became supervisor of the program in May 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile. He did not respond to emails seeking comment.

When asked about Osborne, Clarke indicated that he took on extra work when his staff was put on leave, helped others with the investigation, worked directly with clients and helped do a survey to find out who was harmed and how.

“Bill Osborne surveyed all the individuals in the program just to make sure no one was missed,” Clarke said. He “reached out not only to clients that were named in the allegations but also to individuals who were enrolled in the program to do a needs assessment to understand what the current needs, challenges and barriers” were.

She declined to discuss Rotman, saying:  “This program is under the umbrella of services that Neal Rotman had oversight for.”

She said two permanent case managers have been hired, and that two other people have been recruited. “Within two to four weeks we should have the program fully staffed,” Clarke said. 

Her priority now is to get the program back on track. She said that going forward, jail diversion staff will be working closely with more people, like probation officers, defense attorneys and the Mental Health Court judge so that there’s more of a collective effort to help keep people suffering from severe mental illness out of the criminal justice system. “I’m trying to make sure this program doesn’t operate in a silo,” Clarke said. “You have this cycle of oversight and review and monitoring.”

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.

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