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Unfulfilled Pleas

“This ain’t no place for the weary kind. This ain’t no place to lose your mind.” Those lines from the Crazy Heart theme aptly describe Mendocino County when it comes to its mental health system.

“There is no mental health in Mendocino County.” That’s what some professionals from local agencies that regularly interact with Mendocino County’s privatized mental health providers say when they meet with colleagues from around the state.

And yet in a late January press release Mendocino County’s Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) had the unmitigated gall to state: “Six months after assuming the lead in reorganizing adult mental health services for Mendocino County, the Ortner Management Group is assessing the on-going transition with a sense of strong optimism.”

Woe be unto the weary minded who live on the Mendocino Coast and need mental health care help. When Ortner took over adult mental health services last summer and made it be known that its coastal subcontract would go to those who run Hospitality House in Fort Bragg, one mental health client who had encountered the leadership at Hospitality House while homeless, immediately threatened to jump off the Noyo Bridge if sent there. Crisis care for such a person? More than six months into the privatization experiment and there is only one (1) fully trained, full time crisis worker on the Mendocino Coast. Inside and out of the system, professionals will tell you that there must be at least two more full time, thoroughly trained crisis workers in Fort Bragg.

Tom Ortner, CEO, OMG
Tom Ortner, CEO, OMG

Even Tom Ortner himself, the CEO of Ortner Management Group (OMG), deigned to comment for the January press release. When asked about Ortner’s accomplishments during their first six months on the job, he said, “I would say that we have made some real progress in improving crisis services in the county. We now have Access Center locations situated in both Ukiah and Fort Bragg.”

What if you are somewhere between just needing help and crisis? With that in mind, last Thursday afternoon (February 6) at 2pm sharp I called the 964-4747 number listed inside the 2014 Fort Bragg/Mendocino phone directory. I found the number under “Mental Health Services” with subheadings for “Crisis-Suicide Prevention” and “Outpatient Services.” The woman who answered said, “Are you in crisis?”

I said, “No. I’m looking for the hours to the Access Center in Fort Bragg.”

Her first response sounded like, “Oof.” After a few moments hesitation she added, “I don’t know.”

When I said that the Access Center might be connected to Hospitality Center the woman gave me a 961-____ number that when dialed turned out to be the Hospitality House, the Fort Bragg facility that provides assistance for the homeless. A man answering the phone there gave me the number 961-0172. That did turn out to be the number for the Hospitality Center’s (I can’t be the only one confused by the similarity between Hospitality House and Hospitality Center) Access Center. Unfortunately, the Hospitality Center was closed. Apparently it is only hospitable for someone to walk into between 9am and 1:30pm.

So, I called the 800-number that is also listed in the phone book for Mental Health Services. I got the same woman who answered my original call. She is located in Ukiah. Again, her first words were, “Are you in crisis?”

I responded, “No,” and asked her how a person on the coast could access the mental health system since the Fort Bragg Access Center had closed at 1:30?

She replied that most trained staff seemed to be constantly “en-route” to somewhere, but gave me a number and a name, which turned out to be that single, solitary fully trained crisis worker. I asked further, what should be done with someone who does go into a mental health crisis situation.

“Take ’em to the ER.”

That’s where we were last summer when Ortner took over. Law enforcement and hospital ER staff are still the first responders, the first crisis workers beyond friends or family or passersby, for most mental health clients in Mendocino County, especially anywhere outside of Ukiah.

Last summer I began writing about “Carole,” a 50-something Mendocino Coast woman. Her son, “William,” is in his 30s and often in mental health crisis. AVA articles chronicled William’s suicide threats, run-ins with law enforcement, and shuffling around the Ortner system from Yuba City to a short-lived placement in Willits in a locale that also houses elderly rest home folks, a walkabout back to the coast, more incarceration in the county jail, then a seemingly hopeful temporary conservatorship — i.e., he got some 24/7 mental health treatment. Temporarily.

A January 29, 2014 letter from Carole shows the circle game William is still caught up in. Carole wrote: “Our family was shocked to learn yesterday that a Judge ordered [my son] no longer be conserved — AGAINST, we’re told, recommendations from two physicians, the Public Guardian, as well as his family. He is to be released to a homeless shelter tomorrow. He needs to be released to a Residential Treatment Program with 24/7 care or he will once again become part of Mendocino County’s jail and hospital revolving door. In a Residential Treatment Program, he has the potential to break out of that cycle. PLEASE take William to a Residential Treatment Program instead of a homeless shelter, so he can have a chance to have a life he would want to live.”

Among others, Carole’s letter was addressed to the Clinical Director of Ortner Management Group (OMG). More than a week later, Carole’s plea has gone unfulfilled. William has avoided a homeless shelter. As of last notice, he was living day-to-day in his mother’s basement.

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