Governor Signs Legislation For Mental Health Services

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Governor Newsom signs CARE Court into law on Wednesday, September 14 alongside state and local leaders, stakeholders. Photo Courtesy Governor’s Office 

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation this week to provide more services to Californians with severe mental health and substance use disorders, but activists warn of backlash for Black and Brown communities.

The Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act – SB 1338 – was authored by Senator Thomas Umberg (D-Santa Ana) and Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton). Under CARE Court, families, clinicians, first responders and others will be able to refer individuals suffering from schizophrenia spectrum or psychotic disorders to services.

According to lawmakers, CARE Court will provide individuals with clinically appropriate, community-based and court-ordered care plans. Services will include short-term stabilization medications, wellness and recovery supports, social services and housing. Services will be provided to individuals while they live in the community. Plans can be between 12-24 months. In addition to a clinical team they’ll be paired with a volunteer supporter and an attorney.

CARE Court will be phased in statewide. Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and San Francisco counties will be the first to implement it and have until October 1, 2023 to start. Sacramento and the other 50 counties will follow by December 1, 2024.

Gov. Newsom said CARE Court will have a transformative impact in communities across California, offering “hope and a new path forward for thousands of struggling Californians and empowering their loved ones to help.”

He was flanked at Wednesday’s signing by stakeholders from throughout the state.

“CARE Court will be a lifeline to thousands of individuals across California looking for help to live a more fulfilling life,” said Jessica Cruz, CEO of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) California.

Some say what the governor is calling a paradigm shift is just plain shifty. They’re calling out the legislation, saying it will create a “racist and costly court bureaucracy that will remove people’s bodily autonomy, forcing them through a legal system that does not have the expertise to effectively support individuals in crisis.” 

Opponents include leaders with The Anti Police-Terror Project, a Black-led coalition that seeks to eradicate police terror in communities of color.

“Under the guise of caring for the most marginalized, this bill effectively criminalizes our communities. Unhoused Californians don’t need surveillance infrastructure that targets them,” said the APTP’s deputy director, James Burch. “They need permanent supportive housing, community, purpose, and health care.” 

Leaders say the population CARE Court seeks to serve will be better off with permanent supportive housing assistance and adequately-resourced, voluntary outpatient treatment – not court-ordered treatment. 

The new law, they add,  will create serious overreach by the courts and police, and result in more human rights violations. 

“Newsom’s ‘CARE’ Court legislation dishonestly uses words like ‘voluntary’ and ‘graduation’, when, in fact, what we are talking about is coercion and intimidation. It is disturbingly obvious that the real function of this bill is to further embed the judicial system and the prison industrial complex inside of our healthcare system,” said APTP and Mental Health First co-founder Asantewaa Boykin.

Boykin, who is also a registered nurse, testified at the CARE Court hearings earlier this year and says she was disheartened by the proceedings and by listening to other Black people speak in favor of it.

Cat Brooks, executive director of both the Justice Teams Network and the APTP, says unhoused Black individuals dealing with mental health challenges will face the greatest danger of forced hospitalization and medicalization. People with untreated mental health disabilities, she adds, are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement. 

That statistic is backed up locally by the fates of men like Robert Coleman, who was fatally shot in 2020; Darell Richards, who was killed in September 2018; and Joseph Mann, who was killed in 2016.

“For years we’ve been fighting to separate people with mental health disabilities from the criminal legal system. This bill is a huge step backwards,” Brooks said. “Black people with mental health disabilities are already disproportionately represented in California jails and prisons. With an estimated quarter of police shootings involving people with mental health disabilities, the idea of having police force Black and Brown folks into treatment is a recipe for more police terror on people of color.”

CARE Court received bipartisan and near-unanimous approval in both the state Senate and Assembly. According to the governor’s office, it received unprecedented funding under the state’s $15.3 billion investment in addressing homelessness, including $1.5 billion for behavioral bridge housing; more than $11.6 billion annually for mental health programs throughout California; and more than $1.4 billion for our health and human services workforce. An additional $88.3 million in CARE Court start-up funds was provided for the state, counties, courts, self-help and legal aid.

“I have seen first-hand the good that can come when our judicial, executive, and legislative branches work together to address delicate populations and nuanced issues like mental health, veterans, at-risk youth, and substance use,” said Senator Umberg.

“The individual frameworks and best practices for collaboration exist here – and we pulled them together in SB 1338 for something new and revolutionary in California.” 

“Our behavioral health system is broken and has allowed too many people with severe mental illness to fall through the cracks,” said Senator Talamantes Eggman.

“The crisis is playing out on our streets and Californians want an answer to the crisis of conscience we all feel when we see this suffering firsthand. The CARE Act provides a critical new on-ramp into the behavioral health system for a population of people that are the hardest to reach. Basic human dignity requires us to put our full effort into helping get care for people struggling with severe mental illness on our streets.”

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