CARE Court has been in session for almost two weeks now, and it’s getting off to a very slow start.
The program — created with last year’s passage of the Community Assistance, Recover and Empowerment Act, or CARE Act — began Oct. 2 and gives San Diego County families and a host of others the ability to petition a judge in the hopes of getting someone into court-ordered mental health treatment. CARE Court will initially focus on people with schizophrenia and related disorders and is designed to hold both the counties that provide mental health services and the people participating accountable.
San Diego is one of seven California counties that are helping kick-start the new program, and by the end of the first week, just six CARE Court petitions had been filed locally.
The region is not an anomaly, it seems. Across California, only 15 petitions were filed in the first week of the new program, according to statistics released by the Judicial Council of California on Friday. San Diego’s total was the highest. Orange County was next in line with four petitions, and Riverside saw three. A single petition was filed in both San Francisco and Tuolumne counties, and no petitions were filed in the counties of Glenn and Stanislaus.
Going forward, figures will be reported out monthly, court officials said.
Outside of the number of petitions filed, few additional details have been released about cases currently under review. San Diego officials did not provide information about the types of people who petitioned the court — whether they were families, first responders or behavioral health officials. It is also unclear whether, after a court review of the petitions, anyone has been deemed eligible for the program.
As of Thursday, no initial appearances had been held, and none have been scheduled in San Diego.
The program is in its infancy, and county officials said the slow start was somewhat expected.
“Most counties and state leadership have anticipated relatively low numbers of referrals initially, with numbers likely increasing over the weeks and months ahead,” Tim McClain, a county spokesperson, said in a statement.
Still, some questioned whether the region could have done more to bolster participation by better educating local mental health advocates, many who work closely with the families of those the program is designed to help.
Linda Mimms, a Poway resident who serves on the Schizophrenia & Psychosis Action Alliance’s board of directors, said people across San Diego County’s mental health space want to see CARE Court succeed but feel like they’re still catching up to how the system works.
“It’s not in the best interest of the population that we’re trying to help here to keep us out of the loop,” said Mimms. “And we’ve been kept out of the loop.”
The passage of the CARE Act — which led to the creation of CARE Court — was viewed by many as one of the most significant changes to California’s mental health system in 50 years. But in the months leading up to the program’s launch, concern and confusion mounted.
Local officials reiterated often that the program was completely voluntary, a sinking declaration for some families who felt their loved ones would benefit most from mandatory treatment.
Conversely, disability rights advocates argued CARE Court is not only coercive, thrusting care upon people who didn’t ask for help, but widens a doorway that could lead to people being detained against their will. This is of particular concern since Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed into law Senate Bill 43, which expands the criteria for detention, treatment and conservatorship of people with serious mental illnesses.
Despite CARE Court’s complicated nature, advocates like Mimms remain hopeful.
“I think that if we can get it implemented in the right way, it can save lives,” she said.
But more needs to be done, she added, to educate and reach out to the people who might benefit from the program — and those that support them. Mimms said for many families, especially those in crisis, it’s the support networks and mental health organizations that already assist them that they are turning to for help.
Improving CARE Court outreach and education is an effort California is tackling, as well. Mimms serves on a state working group tasked with reviewing and providing feedback on training and communication materials for CARE Court. The group held its first meeting on Thursday.
San Diego officials reiterated this week their commitment to that work.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Kimberlee Lagotta, who is in charge of CARE Court locally, said in a statement that more than 20 people who will be involved in the court’s proceedings — including members of the county’s Behavioral Health Services team, county lawyers who will represent petitioners, and public defenders who will represent those with mental illnesses — met in her courtroom last week to get to know each other.
“We are all looking forward to working together to provide the best possible outcomes for CARE Act participants, and make sure that those who may not meet the strict CARE Act eligibility requirements can be connected to other services,” Lagotta said.
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