No Matter How Violently He Behaves, the State Hospital Keeps Expelling This Mentally Ill Portlander Back to Town

Reliant on medication he does not want to take, he has become increasingly incapable of leading a normal life outside of the hospital.

Oregon State Hospital is full and releasing patients early. (Brian Burk)

In early December, Julie Dodge, head of Multnomah County’s behavioral health division, went to Salem with a story to tell.

Medical records are closely protected secrets, and it’s exceedingly rare for health officials to talk shop publicly. But this case so disturbed Dodge that she decided lawmakers needed to hear about it. So she picked a pseudonym, and plunged on.

“I want to introduce you to Frank,” she told them.

Dodge had first heard of Frank two months into her job. He was locked in an isolation room at a Legacy hospital emergency ward, deemed too dangerous to release to the streets but not dangerous enough to win admission to the state’s psychiatric hospital for long-term care.

For years, “high-acuity” cases like Frank’s have been the dirty secret of Oregon’s mental health system. As WW detailed in last week’s cover story, Oregon has downsized its psychiatric hospitals over the years but not built the community facilities needed to replace them (“Revolving Door,” March 1). Oregon State Hospital, the state’s flagship psychiatric hospital, is so overwhelmed it has begun refusing entrance to nearly anyone who isn’t charged with or convicted of a crime, and discharging some of its patients early.

The result is that people like Frank with severe mental illness are warehoused in jails and emergency rooms, which administrators say offer little if any treatment and that disability advocates say amount to a violation of their civil rights.

Sheriffs and nonprofit hospitals say they don’t have the resources to handle people like Frank, so they expel them back to the streets—where their behavior soon attracts the attention of police, who send them straight back to isolation.

Frank’s story illustrates the consequences of the state’s new early release policy, Dodge says, which has allowed Oregon to open up beds at its overflowing hospital by shifting the burden to similarly overloaded local health systems. The system fails people like Frank, she says, who need ongoing around-the-clock care and can only get it, in brief spurts, by committing acts of violence.

“It increases costs throughout our entire system and increases risk throughout our entire system,” Dodge told lawmakers. “These decisions impact real human beings.”

It’s rare to learn the full history of people who go through the system’s revolving door—they make brief, lurid headlines then disappear. But after Dodge testified about Frank publicly, WW traced his story.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, Frank has been hospitalized a dozen times since—most recently in January after spending a year at the state hospital, the maximum amount of time allowed under the new policy. (He is one of more than 40 patients the hospital has notified the Multnomah County Circuit Court it’s sending home since that policy went into effect last September.)

Reliant on medication he does not want to take and incapable of accomplishing everyday tasks, Frank has become increasingly incapable of leading a normal life outside of the hospital.

When he is hospitalized, he assaults staff. When he is released, he hurts random people on the streets—or himself. The violence has worsened.

Prosecutors say Frank wants to be back in Oregon State Hospital, and has figured out the only surefire way to earn admission is to commit violence. His defense attorney says he’s already been locked up far longer than his crimes deserve and his charges should be dismissed.

He now sits in Multnomah County Jail, but he cannot be held there much longer. And the county has nowhere to send him.

Frank is 38 years old. His real name is Joshua McCurry. His story showcases a system that has failed both him and the people he encounters.

Oregon State Hospital is full and releasing patients early. (Brian Burk)

McCurry was 5 years old when his family moved to Portland. He showed promise as a Little League pitcher and briefly attended Grant High School before mental illness tore his life apart.

At 19, he was sent to a psychiatric ward after threatening his family. It was the first of a dozen hospitalizations and just as many arrests, his mother, Bobbie Hazelwood, tells WW. McCurry refuses to take his prescribed antipsychotic medication and cycles back and forth between institutions.

His mother fears for his life every time he’s released. In his late 20s, McCurry walked out of a hospital and days later jumped off an overpass onto Interstate 405.

“He’s a sweet guy. He’s a funny guy. He loves his family,” Hazelwood says. “We all love him to death.”

But his mental illness is a danger not only to him, but also the community. Court records show McCurry has been repeatedly accused of violent acts in recent years.

In early 2020, he attacked a Providence ER nurse and three security guards with his fists and teeth, spitting blood as they handcuffed him to a wheelchair.

County officials attempted to send him to Oregon State Hospital, Dodge told legislators, but the state said he wasn’t dangerous enough to warrant admission.

Every other place has proven inadequate to McCurry’s condition.

In early 2021, after living in several budget motels and being arrested for five assaults, McCurry was admitted to Legacy Health’s dedicated psychiatric hospital, the Unity Center for Behavioral Health. But it too is overburdened and not designed for long-term stay, and McCurry was soon out the door. His next stop that year was at one of a handful of secure residential treatment facilities: Arbor Place, a 16-bed clinic in Northeast Portland that at the time was certified to use restraints and administer medication involuntarily, one of very few SRTFs to carry that designation.

But McCurry didn’t last long there either. Within months, he put another patient in a chokehold and groped a staff member.

McCurry was once again dropped off at Legacy, where he stayed two weeks before being expelled Aug. 13, 2021.

Later that day, McCurry punched a pregnant mother in the face outside Pioneer Place mall downtown. Bystanders held McCurry down until police arrived. The woman was taken to the hospital for stitches.

Traumatized, she has spoken to no one about it since. She requested WW not publish her name. “I wish that there was more attention to the mental health issue in Portland,” she tells WW. “It needs to not be coddled—it needs to be addressed.”

McCurry was booked in jail and released shortly after the incident. “I’m going to keep beating people up,” he told police.

And he did.Only after attacking a law enforcement officer was McCurry finally sent to Oregon State Hospital.

A week after attacking the pregnant woman, McCurry punched a security guard who was eating his lunch near a bus stop downtown. When police arrived, McCurry hit one in the eye, earning himself a felony charge.

Two months later, a judge finally ruled McCurry was unfit to stand trial.

He would spend most of 2022 at the state hospital.

With McCurry’s one-year mandated expulsion barely a week away, a state psychologist finally obtained medical records from his stays at Providence and Legacy. There, nurses noted, McCurry seemed to be acting out in hopes of being sent to OSH. The psychologist concluded McCurry’s bouts of violence were due to a “personality disorder,” not psychosis, she testified in court.

The hospital was kicking him out. Not that it mattered: It would have anyway under the new early release policy.

McCurry’s public defender says his charges should be dismissed. He has spent far longer locked up and awaiting trial than he ever would have spent in prison if convicted for his crimes, Rosie Achorn-Rubenstein argued.

Judge Nan Waller disagreed. “Dismissal should be used sparingly,” she said Feb. 15. Now she had to figure out what to do with him.

Waller turned to McCurry, in jail blues and shackles with a large red gash above his nose. He seemed to do better when he was on medication, she noted. Would he be willing to keep taking it if she released him?

“I’m not going to be forced to take meds, I don’t believe in it,” he said. “I stand by that.”

On Monday, Waller ruled that McCurry was “able” to aid and assist, keeping him in the justice system—for now.

His next court date is scheduled for later this month. He remains in jail and will probably be sentenced to probation.

If McCurry ends up back on his own, which seems likely, his mother fears the worst. The two speak daily over the phone.

“I’m terribly, terribly worried that this will be my son’s last go-around,” Bobbie Hazelwood said. “If they are to just put him out, I think that will end Josh’s life.”

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