Health Board leaders share update on treatment center

The Health Board will expand the number of beds offered to pregnant and parenting people at the facility and has also designated a 32-bed wing to offer a more exclusive treatment experience, helping the Health Board offset the costs of operating the facility.

At an event held in honor of Native American Heritage Month, leaders of the Seattle Indian Health Board shared updates on their plans to open a 92-bed inpatient treatment center on Vashon, saying they would increase the number of pregnant and parenting people served at the facility.

The as-yet-unnamed facility, now slated to open in 18 months, will serve patients seeking recovery from substance abuse disorders, though not offer detox services. Like all other Health Board services, it will be open to all people, but rooted in Native cultural practices and traditional Indian medicine.

At the event, islanders learned that the facility will have different wings and dining rooms for three distinct populations of relatives (as the Health Board refers to all its patients). These three groups will include pregnant and parenting people and their children; a general population; and a 16-bed wing that will serve those who have access to private insurance.

The 16-bed wing, according to the Health Board, will create opportunities for those in need of services who would like more discretion and privacy in their treatment. These relatives could include current residents of Vashon with access to private insurance, as well as tribal leaders and their family members. Offering a more exclusive experience, this wing will also help the Health Board offset the costs of operating the facility.

With a 40 to 50-person staff, the facility will provide significant job opportunities for islanders, Health Board leaders said, in a wide range of positions from IT workers to physicians. The Health Board will also seek to engage a wide range of volunteers at the facility, they said.

The event at Vashon Center for the Arts on Nov. 20 included a silent auction, a buffet of food prepared by the island restaurant Gravy, and a special exhibit of Indigenous artworks by Israel Shotridge (Tlingit), a local artist and co-owner of the Raven’s Nest Gallery, and Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee).

Echo-Hawk is the executive vice president of the Health Board, as well as the director of its nationally acclaimed data and research arm, the Urban Indian Health Institute.

Speaking to the 200 islanders who had gathered for the event, Echo-Hawk relayed her own experience facing discrimination and bigotry while seeking healthcare in Seattle years ago, as a pregnant teenager — an example, she said, of what Indigenous people go through when they do not have access to culturally relevant care.

After that experience, she said, she had sought care at the Health Board’s clinic, where she had felt “wrapped in love — I knew I was home.”

Now known for her groundbreaking work to address a severe, systemic undercounting and exclusion of data pertaining to American Indians and Alaska Natives that has resulted in a lack of resources for those populations, Echo-Hawk also creates art that underscores the resilience and strength of Native people.

Describing her artworks based on Native American ribbon skirts — one of which was made from body bags that were, disturbingly, sent to the Health Board by the federal government instead of its request for personal protective equipment (PPE) at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic — Echo-Hawk spoke passionately about the Health Board’s 53-year history in providing care for Native Americans and asked islanders to join that work.

“I think that one of the opportunities for community engagement right now is to be really excited, as we join together in partnership as a new community member who is not only leading here but nationally,” she said, while also praising the strengths already in place in the Vashon community.

“We’re just going to be really proud of each other,” she said, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.

At the event, Esther Lucero (Diné), President and CEO of the Health Board, also spoke passionately, describing the healing that would happen at the new treatment center.

Acknowledging that 18 months was a tight timeline to open the facility, she said she believed it was possible and would push to make it happen.

When the treatment center opens, Lucero announced, it will allocate 15 of its beds for pregnant and parenting people — offering those relatives an opportunity to be in the facility with up to two young children during their recovery.

Previously, the Health Board had planned to reserve 10 beds for this population, but Lucero said that number has increased based on the urgent need for such care, pointed out by a tribal elder who told her: “We are losing generations of our babies to foster care.”

Only one other facility in the country, located in California, now offers this type of culturally-attuned inpatient recovery treatment for pregnant and parenting people, said Echo-Hawk, offering 10 beds for that purpose.

The Health Board’s new facility on Vashon will more than double that capacity nationwide.

“That means that other family members aren’t going to have to take on [child care responsibilities] — something that can be a little more difficult and again, ends up with the foster care system involved,” Echo-Hawk said, adding that people who want to continue to care for their children as they undergo treatment “deserve that option.”

The Health Board’s vision for the treatment center, Lucero said, was to provide a beautiful, spa-like facility for those who needed treatment.

“We want to be the Betty Ford of Indian Country,” she said. “We want [those who need services] to move away from some of those risk factors and just come to a place where they can be healed.”

A building transformed

The facility will be housed in the former home of Vashon Community Care (VCC), a building that the Health Board purchased on March 31 for $11 million from Transforming Age, the nonprofit owner and operator of the long-term care facility from 2017 to 2021.

The purchase came after the closure, in 2019, of the Health Board’s nationally-recognized Thunderbird Treatment Center, a facility located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle for 33 years.

At the time, the Health Board said the aging facility — which had boasted a graduation rate of 61% of those who sought treatment, the highest in the state — was no longer suitable for its needs and that it would seek to expand its substance abuse treatment programs in a new location.

The VCC property is “that place,” Lucero said, at the event — detailing how tribal partners had told her so.

“When I talked to the Puyallup, they said they knew, because this is their land,” Lucero said. “When I talked to the Muckleshoot, they said they knew, because they purchased property here so that they can reinstitute their traditional medicine from traditional plants. Our ancestors knew — because we don’t do anything without praying on it. They knew. Now we know.”

Designs for the facility are currently still in development and will be shared first with neighbors of the new facility, said Lucero. These designs incorporate requests and lessons from Thunderbird graduates and their families, community members, and conversations with the Health Board’s network of about 340 different federally recognized tribes, she added.

The facility will include a sweat lodge, a ceremonial space with a skylight that captures the movement of the sun, and soft lighting. Natural materials adorning the facility and its furnishing will express a love of nature and the healing properties of Indigenous plants.

The property will also be fenced, Lucero said, describing a wooden fence with a height of approximately six feet, and a gate adorned with a Native American design.

The Health Board will offer comprehensive health and human services at the facility, including resources to help graduates obtain jobs and housing if needed.

In the future, the Health Board hopes to open a medical clinic on the property. In the interim, Lucero said, it will provide those services through its mobile unit, including dental care — a service that is needed by the wider community on Vashon, she noted.

The facility’s recovery practices will include art therapy, drumming, singing, and sunrise ceremonies, she said.

Lucero said that the Health Board was still working to solve some issues critical to the facility’s operation, but that she was confident that all the hurdles faced by the island’s remote location could be solved.

“When we make a commitment to our people, we do it,” she said.

These hurdles include securing a means of 24-hour transportation to the island — a necessity in moving people into treatment as soon as they are ready to enter the facility, whatever their circumstances.

“I’ve been working with King County to get a specialized contract for a 24-hour water taxi,” Lucero said. “We’ve been talking to tribes about having our own transport system. For example, the Puyallup [Tribe] has seaplanes. When I talked to the Tulalip, they were not opposed to buying a ferry. We have talked about shuttle service.”

Lucero said that the Health Board was also interested in the possibility of working to enhance Vashon’s airport as a means of accessing the island.

“So we’re working every single angle we possibly can,” she said. “I don’t have the answer yet, but I can assure you that we will not be serving pregnant parents and parenting people until we have that response.”

Lucero said that she and other Health Board leaders would continue to inform the Vashon community about their plans for the facility — citing her organization’s engagement with the local newspaper and interactions with local entities including Vashon Health Care District, Vashon HouseHold and Vashon Center for the Arts.

But an August appearance by Health Board leaders at a Vashon-Maury Island Community Council Meeting, she said, had been “not very respectfully engaging.”

Calling substance abuse disorder a “symptom of trauma” inflicted on Native Americans in multiple historical ways, she said she would “never apologize for addressing healing in our community.”

“I want you to know that I will engage, but it’s going to be on my terms,” she added, earning a round of applause and shouts of “yes” from attendees.