Family believes death was preventable
The family of the woman who jumped from the Astoria Bridge in April is preparing a lawsuit against Clatsop County and Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, alleging her suicide was preventable and that the county and the private mental health provider failed statutory and moral obligations to protect her from harm.
Carrie Barnhart, a 54-year-old mother of six, had chronic mental illness and committed suicide a week after Astoria Police pulled her from the bridge after midnight and took her to Columbia Memorial Hospital, where she was evaluated by Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare and released after two hours.
Astoria Police had responded to suicide threats from Barnhart four times between January and April, and her family disclosed several other instances over the previous year where she had threatened to kill herself.
In a tort claim notice filed in October, Jeremiah Ross, a Portland attorney for the Barnhart family, argues that state law imposes obligations on the county, Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare and others to protect the mentally ill from harming themselves. The notice, a precursor to a lawsuit seeking damages, was also sent to Lincoln County and Benton County, where Barnhart received mental health treatment, and the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees mental health services statewide.
“Ms. Barnhart lacked the mental capacity to protect herself from harm, and Oregon law prescribes safeguards to protect her from harming herself,” Ross wrote. “From the record, it becomes apparent adequate safeguards were not in place. People and entities were not doing their jobs.”
Deficiencies in mental heath care
The notice refers to deficiencies at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare — many of which were documented by The Daily Astorian in August — and the fact that the county renewed a contract with the private provider to administer mental health programs despite being aware of the criticism.
Ross highlighted an April email from Scott Somers, the former county manager, who, after reading about Barnhart’s suicide, wrote to a colleague that it sounded “like another case of denying admission to someone in need. This is the consistent message we’ve been hearing.”
“CBH’s failures made Carrie Barnhart’s suicide inevitable, because Ms. Barnhart’s suicide, ‘was another case of denying admission to someone in need,’” Ross wrote in the tort claim notice.
The state Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigations is conducting an investigation into Barnhart’s death. The state could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday about the status of the investigation.
Clatsop County forwarded the tort claim notice to Citycounty Insurance Services in Salem, the county’s insurance carrier. Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare is reviewing the notice with counsel and had no further comment.
Committed to improving care
In August, Sumuer Watkins, the executive director of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, told The Daily Astorian in a written statement that the agency is committed to improving crisis-response services.
A crisis respite center being planned for Warrenton is expected to provide an alternative to jail or hospitalization, a potential safety valve that could help prevent patients like Barnhart from being released too early.
Mental health treatment is a challenge across Oregon, particularly in rural parts of the state, but Barnhart’s suicide called attention to the persistent gaps in Clatsop County, where the two major hospitals — Columbia Memorial Hospital and Providence Seaside — are not certified to provide involuntary care, custody or treatment for the mentally ill.
District Attorney Josh Marquis said in July that the county is in crisis on mental health. Astoria Police Chief Brad Johnston and several of his police officers have also been exasperated that mental health intervention too often falls to law enforcement.
Struggle with mental illness
The tort claim notice outlines Barnhart’s struggle with mental illness in greater detail than her family had previously disclosed publicly.
Barnhart, according to the notice, had been brought to Columbia Memorial Hospital and Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare’s attention in November 2014 because she was having hallucinations. She was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis in Benton County for treatment.
The notice claims Barnhart was released in December 2014 to her family’s trailer in Toledo, in Lincoln County, but that neither Benton nor Lincoln counties provided follow-up services.
After her family brought Barnhart back to live in Astoria, she drew the attention of Astoria Police, Columbia Memorial Hospital and Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare in January after she cut her neck with a knife. She was transferred to Salem Hospital for care.
After two more suicide threats in January — one where Astoria Police learned she had been hearing voices telling her to jump off the Astoria Bridge and another where police found her on the bridge — she was again taken to Columbia Memorial Hospital, evaluated by Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare and transferred to Good Samaritan in Corvallis.
Barnhart was eventually discharged from the hospital and returned to her family in Astoria. Police intercepted her on the bridge one last time before she finally carried out her suicide plan in late April.
‘Cracks in the system’
While the tort claim notice foreshadows a complaint for monetary damages, Ross said the family wants answers about what happened to Barnhart.
“A lot of it is about getting answers and trying to hold some people accountable,” Ross said.
Artanya Barnhart, Barnhart’s daughter, said she wants to ensure that “this doesn’t happen to another family and that family has to go through this senseless pain.
“I just think there are cracks in the system and it needs to be fixed.”