The Mental Health Board of Mendocino County held a special meeting on May 7th to hear additional information regarding Laura's Law (Assembly Bill 1421) and its possible implementation in Mendocino County. Laura's Law, modeled on New York state legislation, essentially amounts to assisted outpatient treatment (AOT for acronym followers).
Who qualifies for AOT? A person with a serious mental disorder who is unlikely to survive safely within the community without help. Such individuals can be seen on any given day in Mendocino County's courts. One day before the May 7th meeting, Ten Mile Courthouse provided a near perfect example, a 38 year old woman whose most recent arrest was for being a public nuisance and violating the terms of her prior misdemeanor probation. The woman was so obviously inebriated in the afternoon courtroom that both Assistant District Attorney Kevin Davenport and Judge Clayton Brennan noticed. The judge asked her if she had consumed any alcohol that day. The woman responded, "I drank a little this morning to calm my nerves."
The judge ordered the bailiff to take her out for a sobriety test. A few minutes later a deputy returned with the result: .29 (the legal limit for drivers is .08). The judge, obviously reluctant to send the woman over the hill to the county jail, asked if she had housing. "I tried Hospitality House," she slurred, "but they say, 'Full, full, full.'"
The real answer may be that Hospitality House will not provide overnight accommodation to a person who is intoxicated on any given evening. The woman indicated that she'd been lucky lately, rotating among acquaintances for overnight housing.
If a person cannot fend for themselves, mentally and physically, Laura's Law states that help can be requested for them by any adult with whom the person at risk resides, an adult relative, or an officer of the law. Judge Brennan most certainly recognized that this woman needed help. He said as much, stating that she was in need of long-term residential rehab. Where does someone without funds get started on that rehab in Mendocino County?
Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg made that perfectly clear late in the May 7th Laura's Law meeting. The poor who are mentally ill in this county "end up at a place you don't want to go — the mental hospital on Low Gap Road." Law enforcement officers have become the primary first responders in this county for mental health crises, and that means the chronically mentally ill end up at the county jail.
The Laura's Law meeting was attended by both Hamburg and Fourth District Supervisor Dan Gjerde. Hamburg is the Board of Supervisors official liason to the Mental Health Board. Gjerde attended the meeting as an interested observer. Also in the audience was Stacey Cryer, head of Mendocino County's Health and Human Services Agency. The two supervisors seemed very attentive to the Laura's Law presentation and discussion while Cryer spent a vast majority of her time texting then leaving before the meeting was over. The youthful attorney representing our county counsel's office sat silent with arms clutched tight across her chest throughout the meeting. Sheriff Allman arrived late and left after an hour's attendance, but appeared more engaged than Cryer.
Ultimately, the Mental Health Board unanimously passed a resolution urging the Board of Supervisors to implement Laura's Law here in Mendocino County. This came after discussion in which everyone from Mental Health Board members to the presenters from Nevada County, where Laura's Law has been implemented with much success and some record of monetary savings, agreed that the AOT program was not a panacea. It is inherently a low-numbers program that relies on the subjects, the mentally ill, to voluntarily undertake the program. This, of course, means that those within the system be highly motivated and well-trained therapists or social workers to successfully engage and encourage the mentally ill into starting the program as well as guiding them through AOT treatment. All of this begs the question put in the form of a statement by Mental Health Board member Dina Ortiz near the end of the meeting, "It is hard to implement a program without the proper services."
Which leads us back to Ten Mile Court, where Judge Brennan, with encouragement from Deputy DA Davenport, directed the inebriated woman to check in with him in the courtroom the following morning at 9am. Both Brennan and Davenport admonished her to arrive fully sober. In the meantime, Brennan advised her to bring back proof of attendance from at least one AA meeting during the afternoon or evening and to go directly from the court to the Hospitality Center (subcontractor for the privatized adult mental health provider for this county, Ortner Management Group [OMG]). The woman got a ride from Ten Mile Court to the Hospitality Center offices which were closed. The woman's court hearing began at 1:30pm. The Hospitality Center, the main provider for adult mental health services on the Mendocino Coast is open on weekdays from 9:30 to 1:30!
Ms. Ortiz's comment proved frustratingly true for the Fort Bragg woman who was attempting to take the first step in AOT treatment on her own.