“People are fed up and they want something done,” said Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy for the Western Center on Law & Poverty, which opposes the bill. “It’s just that what we’re proposing to do is highly unlikely to work.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
After issuing a letter in strong opposition, groups request specific answers for core components of proposal
Sacramento, CA – With Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposal for a so-called “CARE Court” set to be heard by the legislature this week, and after more than 40 advocacy groups including ACLU California Action, Disability Rights California, and Western Center on Law & Poverty submitted resounding opposition to its related bill, SB 1338 (Umberg & Eggman), advocates say fundamental questions remain unaddressed by the administration and bill authors.
The specific questions advocates have about the proposal include:
- How would the CARE Court respond to the crisis of insufficient housing and treatment availability for people who need either or both?
- How would the CARE Court avoid reinforcing systemic racial biases which result in disproportionate numbers of Black and brown people unhoused and under court supervision?
- How would the CARE Court achieve effective outcomes with coerced treatment where evidence has consistently supported adequately resourced voluntary treatment instead?
- How would the CARE Court avoid fast-tracking vulnerable people with disabilities to conservatorship and the diminution of their autonomy and legal rights?
The joint opposition letter sent to legislators this month unequivocally states that the framework of the proposal is entirely and irreparably flawed. Specifically, if these fundamental questions go unaddressed, the proposal is simply bill language without substance.
“Instead of creating a new court system to delegate medical care, California should guarantee housing for people who are unhoused and for those with severe mental health disabilities,” says Helen Tran, health attorney for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Forcing people into court-ordered treatment without guarantee of permanent housing will create a continuous cycle of court intervention when people find themselves back on the street due to California’s severe lack of affordable, permanent supportive housing. State funds should be directed toward the creation of housing and supportive services to help people maintain their housing and health care needs.”
The groups say the proposed CARE Court model will lead to unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities and unhoused people and will likely create a chilling effect that prevents people from seeking supportive services for fear of being institutionalized or otherwise having their rights stripped. The proposal also feeds into the false narrative that most unhoused people have a psychiatric disorder.
“CARE Court is a fast track to re-institutionalize Californians living with mental health disabilities,” says Kim Pederson, senior attorney at Disability Rights California. “The state should invest in evidence-based practices for voluntary engagement in community-based, trauma-informed, culturally-responsive mental health services. Instead, CARE Court creates a punitive system under which a person must comply with court orders or risk being conserved and institutionalized. True recovery and empowerment can only come from providing people with meaningful opportunities to make their own choices about the services that will work best for them.”
Additionally, by involving the legal system the proposal will perpetuate institutional racism and exacerbate existing disparities in health care delivery since Black, Indigenous and other people of color are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with psychotic disorders than white people, and because there is clear evidence that adequately resourced, intensive, voluntary outpatient treatment is more effective than court-ordered treatment.
“At a time when there is an unprecedented housing crisis that disproportionately impacts Black people and other people of color, many of whom have already been entangled in failed legal and other systems, this proposal if enacted would have disastrous consequences,” says Brandon Greene, director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California. “What we need is investment in holistic community driven systems not punitive ones that further alienate and ostracize.”
ACLU California Action is the statewide legislative policy arm of the ACLU affiliates in California. The ACLU works to protect civil liberties and civil rights and advance equity, justice, and freedom for all.
Disability Rights California (DRC) is the agency designated under federal law to protect and advocate for the rights of Californians with disabilities. The mission of DRC is to advance the rights, dignity, equal opportunities, and choices for all people with disabilities.Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice.
“Ultimately, if the measures make their way through committees, the Newsom administration may negotiate with legislative leaders to add one to his revised budget as a trailer bill, said Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy for the Western Center on Law and Policy.”
“Cynthia Castillo, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said Newsom’s plan “seems to be expanding the bureaucracy of homelessness services.”
“We are adding judges and attorneys into the mix in hopes of better connecting unhoused individuals with housing and medical care, but nothing else really changes,” she said.”
“The Western Center on Law and Poverty pointed to a 2020 state audit that found many people put under conservatorship wound up with limited treatment and follow-up while the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office called the proposal a “band-aid” approach falling short of the fully funded mental health system California needs.”
Free Britney – the call to end the conservatorship of superstar Britney Spears has expanded across the globe, thanks to a grassroots movement recently bolstered by the New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears.” Since the beginning of her conservatorship critics have demanded its termination; advocates were first dismissed as overzealous fans, but their claims were based on facts uncovered in legal filings, raising legitimate concerns about the probate court system. Spears’ case, while singular in fame and fortune, illustrates the complications of conservatorship, particularly in California.
Britney Spears has been under conservatorship since 2008, though, she continues to fight it in court, and she continues to be highly productive. Paradoxically, Spears has been denied the freedom to make phone calls, operate a motor vehicle, and access her finances, all the while recording four studio albums and performing in four world tours, in addition to a four-year Las Vegas residency.
It is often the case, as it appears to be with Spears, that conservatorship is inappropriate or inadequate for the problem it seeks to solve. Nevertheless, California legislators continue to propose expanding the conservatorship system – 2021 legislative session included.
There are different conservatorships in California. One stems from the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS), which established California’s system of conservatorship and involuntary treatment for people who are gravely disabled — meaning they can’t meet basic needs. Those conservatorships are initiated by medical or legal professionals. Another, known as probate conservatorship, has less stringent standards and can be initiated by anyone, including parents. Probate conservatorship, which is what Spears is under, is meant to protect people who are unable to provide for their own needs, or to protect them from undue influence.
Spears’ case illustrates how extreme conservatorship can be – even for someone as wealthy and famous as she; it also represents the tip of a large iceberg. If one of the most successful pop stars of the century can be deemed unfit to control her life, what happens to people who don’t have nearly the amount of fame or money?
Britney Spears can work and make money, even though conservatorship is supposed to be for people who can’t. For those in the system without money, they or their families sometimes receive astronomical bills (in the one-million-dollar range) upon release from California’s State Hospital system, which treats individuals with severe disabilities under LPS conservatorship. The bills say the state can go after the former patient’s spouse, children, parents, and estates for payment. Still, in spite of the potentially devastating financial and psychological effects, California continues efforts to expand conservatorship as a solution for mental illness, instead of addressing root causes for what leads people to be conserved.
Last year, a proposed ballot measure misleadingly titled the “California Compassionate Intervention Act” aimed to make it easier for police to detain people on the street who exhibit signs of mental illness, and to eventually conserve them. While the measure did not make it on the ballot, it received substantial attention.
Other measures also sought to expand forced conservatorship, despite the fact that advocates and mental health practitioners say often and repeatedly that the problem should first be addressed by adequate wrap around services — mental and physical health care, housing, and economic resources at earlier points in a person’s life. Instead of making sure those needs are met, California continued with legislation like SB 1045 and its amendment, SB 40, which allows participating municipalities to force people sent to mental health treatment more than eight times in one year to be automatically conserved.
Though SB 1045 and SB 40 were highly controversial and some counties chose not to participate, their passage shows the appetite for conservatorship as an answer to California’s fundamental social failings. That appetite included other failed proposals, like AB 1971 and AB 2156, which would have expanded to definition of “gravely disabled” to make conservatorships easier to obtain.
Also last year, the state auditor found that under California’s conservatorship system, many people who are conserved end up with limited treatment options – conserved with nowhere to heal. Additionally, the auditor found that once people are released from involuntary holds, most do not get follow up treatment. What’s more, there is also confusion over how public dollars are spent for mental health programs.
The case of Britney Spears exposes how well-intentioned policy can create extreme and undesirable outcomes. While the decision to control a person, their finances, and their movement may seem like a straight-forward solution, what the state auditor’s findings show is what advocates and mental health professionals have said all along – longer term solutions for mental illness, homelessness, and other factors leading to conservatorship involve addressing the root cause.
Does everyone have access to long-term housing, treatment for major trauma, access to drug treatment programs, and access to mental and physical health care throughout their life? Or in Britney’s case, refuge from constant prying eyes and abusive, stalking paparazzi and a bloodthirsty public? The answer is no, California has not invested nearly enough to ensure that those very basic needs are met. In light of inaction on those fronts, expanding conservatorship is not a solution, but rather, a surface fix that will never address the poison at the base of the well.
Courtney McKinney is the Director of Communications for Western Center on Law & Poverty. Kevin Wu is a Free Britney activist and runs @freebritneyla. He is featured in “Framing Britney Spears.”
“We have been working on this case for almost two decades now,” said Robert Newman, an attorney for the Los Angeles-based Western Center on Law & Poverty. “To end the lawsuit, the county has agreed to implement several new initiatives to ensure that foster children can remain in their current homes and communities.”
“Sadly, my takeaway was ‘I told you so.’ And I hate being right,” said Jen Flory, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “It’s pointing out that people aren’t getting the services that they need. It’s not that the LPS Act itself doesn’t work. What we hear from our community partners is people need services.”
An initiative aimed at addressing homelessness in California has been submitted to the California Attorney General for the 2020 ballot, which purports “to get help for those who need it, and thereby also greatly reduce nuisance behavior on our streets.”
The initiative is an embarrassing attempt to make California more visually appealing to those who have no interest or knowledge in addressing the root causes of what is happening to people in our state and country. This proposal would take California back into the dark ages of mass institutionalization of people with perceived or real mental illness. This is not new. California has tried this before, and it didn’t work.
Western Center firmly believes this measure is illegal under a number of civil rights laws. Separate from the legal issues, there are a multitude of problems with the measure. This is not a moderate or compromise proposal, but rather, a return to the now debunked “broken windows” theory Rudy Giuliani used in New York City in the 1990s. Such zero tolerance approaches only exacerbate racial and class disparities through an overly aggressive criminal justice system.
In his letter introducing the initiative, its author, former State Assemblymember Mike Gatto, states, “One side primarily believes the government should be more aggressive in making our streets safer for all people. The other side thinks government should be more lenient, believing that economic hardships are the singular cause.”
The idea that there are only two sides to this complicated issue is overly simplistic. Homelessness is the result of rapidly increasing income inequality, but it is also the result of years of government mismanagement of resources and funding, as well as institutionalized racism. Voters in Los Angeles just approved significant funding for homeless services, yet countless individuals experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles continue to go without access to services.
Many of the people who currently live on the streets are victims of our foster-care system, or are veterans who served in one of this country’s numerous wars. In those situations, intervention of vital mental health services would have changed the trajectory away from the streets, but because of local and state government’s lack of implementation oversight or commitment to making sure people get the help they need early on, many of those people are left with only the street to turn to.
The State of California has not prioritized providing services or housing for the ~130,000 people experiencing homelessness here. The idea that the state would now have the resources and wherewithal to create and maintain the vast network of institutions this measure would require is absurd.
Gatto’s proposal would require courts to sentence people with substance use disorders or mental illness to maximum criminal sentences. It then allows courts to force people to serve those sentences in locked mental health or drug rehabilitation facilities. Once they have served those sentences, the court has the discretion to keep people locked in those same facilities. Upon completion of the sentence, courts then get to decide whether the individual’s criminal record can be expunged. This will, unquestionably, steer extremely low-income people into the criminal justice system.
The proposition also requires courts to help those without economic means to secure and access housing and other government services, yet it does not provide any funding mechanism to actually increase the services available.
Institutionalization does not work; all one has to do is look at the massive failure that is America’s prison industrial complex. This measure will NOT end homelessness — it’s not even a workable band-aid.
There are proven solutions that this initiative ignores. The state can ensure that the millions of dollars being allocated for homeless services actually get to the people who need them, where they need them. There have not been nearly enough good-faith efforts to make sure people receive the services needed to get back on their feet.
Local and state governments should make sure people have easy access to mental health services when they are wanted and needed. This measure solely blames the victims, but does nothing to hold the systems accountable that put them there in the first place. Mass homelessness is a societal and government failure, and this measure lets government off the hook.
The state must also ensure that safe, stable, and affordable housing is available to everyone. Service delivery is infinitely more effective when people are housed.
California purports to be a leader for the country and the world, but this measure is more in-line with the regressive policies coming from Washington DC than a state that claims to be on the path toward Governor Newsom’s “California For All.”
If #CaliforniaForAll is to be more than just a pithy hashtag, we absolutely cannot start involuntarily institutionalizing the victims of this country’s out-of-control economic system, failed health care system, centuries of legalized racism and discrimination, and never-ending wars.
If this initiative moves forward, Gatto and his supporters can expect a fight from Western Center and our allies.