PORTLAND, Ore. — Five stories up in downtown Portland’s Five Oak Building, Ebony Sloan Clarke sat in her office and pointed to her computer screen, showing a Google calendar packed with appointments and meetings.

“This is normal,” she said, laughing.

Three months after being officially tapped for the job, the 42-year-old Portland-native is still getting used to the demands of running Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services Division.

She came into the role after roughly six months working as interim director and a decade of working her way up in the division.

But to fully comprehend Clarke’s qualifications, you’d have to go back decades.

"I had to go through the process of being weaned off drugs."

Ebony Sloan Clarke and her brother
Ebony Sloan Clarke and her brother
Courtesy Ebony Sloan Clarke

“My mom was a heroin addict, and I was born premature,” she said. “I think about a month early.”

Clarke, who has heard the story over and over, said her mother, Helen Sloan, sat in a hospital room in Legacy Emanuel Medical Center and watched as the drugs worked their way through her new daughter’s system.

“I had to go through the process of being weaned off the drugs,” she said. “I know that she was gravely concerned for my health and my well-being.”

Ebony Clarke talks about being born "drug affected":

After weeks, doctors gave the all-clear and Clarke was discharged with no health issues.

But the family’s struggles continued, as Clarke's mother continued using drugs.

For a time, aunts and relatives cared for Clarke and her older brother, but eventually, the state stepped in.

Foster care, and an eventual reunion with her mom

Sloan went to prison, and the kids went into foster care. Life was stable for a bit, but the tables turned yet again.

“My foster mother was giving me a bath, and the water was scalding hot. She placed me in the bathtub, and my skin was burned,” Clarke said. “I ended up having third degree burns and ended up having to get skin grafts.”

By that point, she said, her mom was out of prison and in recovery.

Someone called to tell her her toddler had been hurt.

“I know she had this immediate fight-or-flight that she wanted to leave and she wanted to come and get me, but she paused and realized that if she left the program, she'd be throwing away her opportunity to get her kids,” said Clarke.

So, her mother stayed put and eventually won back custody of her children.

She also took a job in the North Portland recovery center where she’d been staying.

It was called Freedom House, said Clarke, and the family stayed there for the next few years. 

Ebony Sloan Clarke, her brother and mother at the recovery center.
Ebony Sloan Clarke (on right) and other residents at the recovery center.
Courtesy Ebony Sloan Clarke

Photos from Clarke’s childhood show her surrounded by adults, staying at the recovery center, which has since closed.

Some stayed for only a few days, and others stayed for years. Some brought their children with them, while some came alone. Nothing was censored, said Clarke, who remembers attending meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Looking back, it was an education in what works.

“Everyone had a story, and it seemed as though there were pinnacle moments in individuals' lives where they made that decision to seek help,” she said. “Basically, folks had peers or you can call them recovery mentors. They had individuals who had similar lived life experiences that came along side.”

Ebony Clarke talks about what it was like to grow up at a rehab center:

“We have to be prepared at any given moment to give someone a hand."

Eventually, Clarke said, her family moved out of the recovery center and into a home.

Today, Helen Sloan is retired, decades sober and has a great relationship with her daughter.

“I raised her to be who she is,” Sloan said in an article on Multnomah County's website. “I knew this young lady was going to be about something. It was real clear to me. She was going to be about something.”

Clarke went on to get degrees from the University of Oregon and Portland State University, and is now a wife and mother of two sons. 

Ebony Sloan Clarke with her husband and 3 kids.
Ebony Sloan Clarke with her husband and 3 kids.
Courtesy Ebony Sloan Clarke

She also runs a Multnomah County department with more than 300 employees, all determined to help Portland’s addicted and mentally ill.

She wants to build a system that gives people in treatment more of a say in how and when they access treatment.

“We have to be prepared at any given moment to give someone a hand,” she said.

Whether they need housing first or an in-patient program, whether they think their battle is with addiction, mental illness or both, she believes their feedback matters.

And it's a belief, that's been built over a lifetime.

“There's this saying that sometimes, it's easy for clinicians to step in and be the experts, but I'm of the belief that it's the individuals that we serve that are the experts,” she said. “And it's our job to assist them to leverage their strengths to get to a place of recovery.”

Ebony Clarke on serving Multnomah County's marginalized community: