More Panels, Less Help

by Malcolm Macdonald, September 25, 2013

On September 17th, a panel calling itself the Coastal Homelessness and Mental Health Action Group met for the first time in the conference room of the Fort Bragg Police Department. The only form of law enforcement present was Loren Rex from State Parks. Other panelists represented the Mendocino Coast District Hospital; Hospitality House (for the homeless); Redwood Children’s Services (recently contracted to provide crisis care and mental health services to those age twenty and younger); the chairman and a board member from the Mendocino County Mental Health Board; 4th District Supervisor Dan Gjerde; the Housing & Economic Development Coordinator for the City of Fort Bragg; Susan Holli of the faith-based organization Love in Action. Other volunteers present included Javier Chavez, an employee of Action Network in Gualala, who traveled to Fort Bragg seeking information on how the homeless and houseless in his area might benefit from services offered farther north.

Despite representatives from so many formal bodies, this so-called “action group” does not constitute an official body. It bills itself as a forum that can result in action by participating entities. This unofficial body formerly went by the moniker Interagency Coast Homelessness Action Group (even the acronym, ICHAG, is a mouthful). The obvious name addition involves mental health, but what do they really do?

Jennifer Owen, the representative from Fort Bragg city government, started a roundtable discussion about gaps in services that exist right now. The issue that came up most was the lack of an “11 o’clock court” on the coast. The “11 o’clock court” idea is meant to find alternatives to jail for low level offenders who have been diagnosed as mentally ill. The program was planned more than a year ago and has been implemented, to some degree, in the Ukiah courts; however, District Attorney Eyster has so far failed to get his office on the coast on board. Supervisor Gjerde said that he had spoken with Eyster about the matter a month ago. Eyster’s apparent excuse has been finding the right replacement for the retiring Ten Mile Court Assistant DA, Tim Stoen. An able attorney, Stoen has been on the job for the last year and more. One has to wonder why Eyster couldn’t get the message to Stoen to go ahead with the program long before now. Hopefully, it has nothing to do with the fact that, as a group, the mentally ill are less apt to vote than the average Eyster supporter.

The Mendocino County judges, as a whole, are also culpable in this neglected scenario. The District Attorney and his coast assistants might be likelier to institute new programs if they did not have to spend so much time fighting a rear guard action just to keep the Ten Mile Court open full time. Our county judges’ most recent learned opinion finds that Ten Mile Court should be shut down on its busiest arraignment and trial days during the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Apparently, Mendocino County’s cluttered cluster of judges didn’t get it when a crowd spilling out onto the street turned up in Fort Bragg one stormy November night last year to protest the previous threatened shut down of the coastal court. Any resident of this county needs to think long and hard before casting a vote for the re-election of any of this black robed band.

Among many issues not discussed during the September 17th gathering was the rumored rift between Ortner Management Group (OMG!) and Hospitality House, which has taken on the role of mental health provider for the Mendocino Coast’s adult population under the privatized umbrella of Ortner (Yes, Virginia, there really is a Mr. Tom Ortner behind the for-profit company). The disagreement apparently stems from Ortner’s plan to stick the Hospitality Center for the cost of unpaid Medi-Cal bills.

There was also no mention of the letters to the editor that have appeared in several Mendocino County newspapers; letters that bring up hard questions such as why the Supervisors awarded the adult mental health services privatization contract to County Mental Health Director Tom Pinizzotto’s former employer, Ortner Management Group instead of Optum health, which has been described as more qualified and more experienced at providing mental health services. The letters also explain the lengths a family member has to go to in order to get mental health care on the coast — or in this county. Almost all the panelists at the September 17th forum are coast dwellers, and if they only read the Mendocino Beacon or Fort Bragg Advocate-News, these letters may have gone unseen. The letters, with tough questions about our mental health services, appeared in the AVA and Media News Group publications in Ukiah and Willits. According to the author, the letters were submitted to the editor of the Media News Group’s Beacon and Advocate-News weeks ago, but to this date remain unpublished.

Ortner Management Group is now approximately 70 days into its contract to provide mental health services to Mendocino County. Meanwhile, a woman took her adult daughter to a Ukiah hospital emergency room in hopes of getting some sort of mental health care for the daughter, whose situation could best be described as at a crisis point. Mother and daughter reportedly remained in the ER for 24 hours before receiving professional help.

Here on the Mendocino Coast, this column has been following a similar pair: 50-something-year-old Carole, who has already been through the Ortner run-around for her 30-something year old son, William. William has been diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, has thrown himself into traffic more than once, and been arrested several times. (Readers should note last week’s AVA letter to the editor from J. Holden of Ukiah which cites the statistic that 92% of state hospital patients in California only arrive at these institutions after going through our criminal justice system).

William threatens suicide often. Two weeks ago I described how William was finally taken to Ortner’s North Valley Behavioral Health center in Yuba City. While he spent ten days there, William reportedly had to be restrained and medicated during crisis situations that included ripping a phone from the wall and hurling a chair across a room. At the end of ten days, Ortner wanted to send William to the Ford Street Project in Ukiah. Carole objected on the grounds that Ford Street provides help for the homeless and would not be able to give William the professional psychiatric care he needs. So William was shipped to Ortner’s Redwood Creek facility in Willits. Redwood Creek still maintains several elderly residents under its previous incarnation as a board and care unit. So you have mental health patients like William being warehoused along with elderly residents who cannot be removed because they are literally grandfathered in by law.

After one day at Redwood Creek, William walked away and hitchhiked back to his mother’s coastal residence. Carole was able to convince William to return to Redwood Creek and drove him back to Willits the next day (Carole is employed, with other adult children). William stayed at Redwood Creek for another ten days to two weeks before checking himself out and returning to the coast once again. The best case scenario for William would be for him to be legally “conserved” within a locked facility with truly professional psychiatric care on a daily basis, care that might help him get on the road to recovery. Mendocino County’s current mental health system seems oblivious to helping Carole to get this accomplished.

William did attend a family gathering in mid-September without causing major disruption, but mostly his mother sees him these days wandering the streets of Fort Bragg, sometimes walking into traffic (as of September 21st he has not been hit) or standing on street corners talking to himself. One day he screamed to his mother that he was being called by God, that he didn’t know how much longer he could ignore God and stay on this planet.

Carole is incredibly frustrated. She’s at a point where she can’t have William living with her and the rest of the family. She thinks it’s useless to call law enforcement about William. She believes that Ortner will not treat William as a mental health case because he may have tested positive for drug use while at Ortner’s North Valley Behavioral Health center. She has acknowledged that William was probably on drugs when he appeared at the family gathering in mid-September.

Here’s where people like those involved in the Coastal Homelessness and Mental Health Action Group could actually take action. People like William are out there homeless. Some may be high on drugs, but they also are ill, mentally ill. A group that supposedly possesses the combined awareness of the problems of homelessness and mental illness with representatives from so many professional and volunteer organizations should already be aware of cases like William’s, and the dozens of others like him.

The closest anyone at the September 17th meeting came to acknowledging folks like William occurred when Mental Health Board Chair Jim Shaw stated that there are gaps in the services provided for mentally ill adults on the Mendocino Coast. Indeed, there are.

William’s mother, Carole, has addressed a number of emails, dating back to early August, to Tom Pinizzotto, Director of Mendocino County Mental Health, to her supervisor, to members of the County Mental Health Board, to Sheriff Tom Allman and her local police chief. A September email that detailed William’s plight included the following: “WHAT PART OF MENTAL ILLNESS do you people (Mendocino County Mental Health and Ortner) not understand? IF HE COULD MAKE IT ON HIS OWN DONT YOU THINK THAT BY THIRTY YEARS OF AGE HE WOULD HAVE MADE IT BY NOW! Yes I am angry and upset that I must fight so hard and I am sure I AM NOT ALONE in this County.”

Later in that email she wrote that she believes William to be about 15 in his own mind. She goes on to say, “I can tell you he is severely depressed, has PTSD and schizoaffective disorder, is homeless and currently psychotic and suicidal. Because I am NOT a mental health care professional, I can’t do this anymore. He will be out there walking in the road so be careful and try not to hit him.”

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