Care Not Court: An Interview with CAMHPRO

Image description: “Care {Not court} Rally. June 14th, 2022. 9am to noon. Westside Capital, Sacramento.” There is the logo for Campro (California Association of Mental Health and Peer Run Organizations.) There is an image of someone’s hands clasping barred windows. “Mental diversity is not a crime. Stand against Forced Treatment. Say no to Newsom’s Care court.”

Interview by: Mad Resistance

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom is proposing an Orwellian solution to homelessness and the “mental health” crisis. CARE Court will vastly increase forced treatment throughout the state, and the legislation has been widely criticized by housing, disability, and human rights advocates, including Disability Rights California, the Western Regional Advocacy Project, the ACLU California Action, and Human Rights Watch.

Despite fierce opposition, CARE Court was unanimously approved by the California Senate on May 25, 2022. It now heads to the California State Assembly for a vote. Madness Network News spoke with Andrea Wagner, Interim Director of the California Association of Mental Health Peer-Run Organizations (CAMHPRO) about what’s at stake in this fight.

CAMPHRO works with peer-run organizations across California to advocate for legislative change within the mental health system – what are the things you’re hearing people ask for? Do people want CARE Court?

I’ve been doing listening sessions with the CAMPHRO’s LEAD program, our Lived Experience Advocacy and Diversity program for two years now, going to counties all over California. Last count I think it was 44 listening sessions. We’re doing small groups with people, asking them, “What is missing? If you had a magic wand, what would you change?” 

None of them said “I want more inpatient stays.” No one said, “I think I need more medication.” No one said, “I think somebody should, you know, lock me in a room and tell me what to do.” It was more like, I need people to talk to, I need support in my community and in my neighborhood, I need housing, I need clothes to go apply for jobs, I need help filling out this paperwork for Social Security, I need someone to speak in my language that understands my culture.

There’s all these things people are asking for, and none of that is what the California government’s proposing in their legislation. It’s very much copying the model of Assisted Outpatient Treatment, which we fought against. It’s really taking that model and pulling away from any rights that the LPS Act protects.

LPS Act stands for the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which outlines everything from people’s rights of how and when they are hospitalized in California to how people get conserved – which is similar to what Britney Spears and Nichelle Nichols experienced, quite famously. When you’re getting hospitalized, LPS already feels too severe, but it does preserve human rights. How does CARE Court undermine the LPS Act?

CARE Court goes completely around it. If [people] don’t take the services that are provided or offered to them, they get conserved. They haven’t done any crime, they haven’t been put on a [psychiatric] hold through LPS. There’s no criteria, behavioral criteria, for who gets this coercive treatment.

Anybody can refer someone – from a family member to a cop, to a counselor, to a school teacher. Anybody could say, “You know, I think you need to be referred to CARE Court,” and then that person has to go through this 12 to 24 month coercive process of taking the medicine and the treatment that is “given” to them – and the housing that is supposedly going to be provided.

This is really frightening stuff. What brings you – personally or politically – to fight against CARE Court?

I have my own lived experienced but I also come to this as somebody who grew up with an older sister who had a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She was treated very poorly in my family, she was my favorite sister. I also married a man who had a long history of being hospitalized since age 14. My first experience with psychiatric holds was seeing him go through that – he ended up in Atascadero State Hospital while he went to prison – and then my children both have mental health challenges.

Having worked in crisis services in my county for five years – starting as a peer advocate, and moving into a counselor position – I’ve been on both sides of being hospitalized. I’ve been the one writing the paperwork to get someone into a hospital. Luckily whenever I did an assessment, I didn’t have to involuntary hospitalize anybody but I could have. I had the keys to the inpatient unit, and I could walk freely in there.

I saw a lot of problems and things that were hurting people, practices that were very dismissive of people’s experience… My last job with the county was doing the hospitalization coordination, so it was my job to look at all the 5150 forms [for involuntary psychiatric holds], and all the medical histories of people. I would create packets to send to all the hospitals to try to get someone a bed, and you know sometimes I would look at the packet and immediately go, “They’re not gonna get placed anywhere.”

If they had diabetes and needed insulin shots, or if they were pregnant, or if they were bordering on dementia, or if they had a cast or a crutch or a cane or a walker or wheelchair – those people don’t get into the psych hospital generally. The hospitals are private. They pick and choose who they want to serve, and they take the easiest clients. That used to drive me up the wall.

Under CARE Court, there’s an idea that counties will be better able to provide services to people.

These services they’re talking about are great and wonderful if you have them, but a lot of counties just don’t have them. You’re setting people up to fail in the system, to be harmed by this system. They think that [CARE Court] will force the counties to create these things but it’s not like that happens overnight. It’s not like CARE Court goes effect in July and then by August you have a whole community-based system that can support it.

You mentioned being a family member of people who are impacted by the mental health system. How does that influence your perspective on CARE Court?

CARE Court is being pushed by a very strong faction from NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness], family members that are saying, “Well, I have these loved ones dying in the street and I want to force them into a hospital and on medication, because they shouldn’t be like that.”

As a family member, I can’t imagine doing that to my sister or my kids or my ex-husband. I remember my ex-husband when he was going to court and facing charges, felony charges, and I spoke to the [District Attorney] that was prosecuting him. I looked him in the face and I said, “Look, he’s really got mental health issues, if you sent him to prison, it’s gonna hurt him.” And he looked me straight in the face – this was in Siskiyou county [in Northern California] – and he said, “I don’t care as long as I don’t have to see him or hear him.”

That was way before I became an advocate, and I thought, Wow… Turns out he used to be a police officer in LA and got in trouble for shooting someone and had his partners cover for him. Then he became a DA. Great job for him.

I understand where the family members come from – I know that sinking feeling of, like, you care about somebody and you don’t know what they’re gonna do next and you don’t have any control over it – but then there’s also maturity that comes and you realize, “I have to accept the things I cannot control.” That’s his choice of what he does, and you know if he does something bad there will be consequences. I don’t have to control that.

It seems like CARE Court isn’t about helping someone through a distressing time in their life, or supporting families to work out their conflicts or stopping abusive behavior. It just sounds like social control.

Exactly.

Governor Newsom is promoting CARE Court as a “solution” to homelessness, and you know, it’s hard times right now. People are on the streets for all kinds of reasons, and a lot of shelters aren’t wheelchair accessible or people get kicked out for breaking minor rules. The current response of the government is to say, “This person isn’t fitting into our system, we need more mechanisms to control them.” It should be called “control court.”

A big proponent behind this is [Sacramento Mayor] Darrell Steinberg. For years, he has put it out very openly. He thinks it should be illegal to sleep outside, and people should be forced to take whatever housing is offered to them – which is absurd to me.

When I was homeless, I didn’t want to go sit in a shelter where there was potential for bedbugs. You couldn’t bring in your own stuff, and you had to be in and out by a certain time. I went and slept in park. I went and slept outside because it was nice to be in nature, and be in a quiet place by myself instead of in a warehouse full of cots and bunkbeds, with someone sleeping over your head, snoring and farting all night.

I’d rather sleep outside and you can call that a mental illness, but I think it’s just preference. You know, like, most people would not want to live that way. I always want to ask Darrell Steinberg, “Would you sleep there?”

We need alternatives that respect people’s human dignity. In the mental health system, when people resist treatment – the violence of being strapped down and injected with medication, losing consciousness, coming to and having no idea how much time is passed – resistance is a way to preserve our dignity. It’s really clear that CARE Court isn’t addressing the housing crisis or this police violence crisis, or any of these very real issues people are facing.

Yeah, I mean that was my answer the other day, I couldn’t my mouth shut at the NAMI meeting. A parent was asking why people can’t get hospitalized more easily, and I said “Wow, it really sounds like we have an opportunity here to fill this void, they’re not getting in the system, you know?” He just looked at me like “What organization are you with?” I couldn’t contain myself.

Peer respites are something that we’ve been really advocating for. Right now, I think there’s six operating in California, maybe seven? We know that they’ve proven to be really effective, and it’s actually what people have been asking for in all these listening sessions. It’s in people’s neighborhood, it’s a welcoming environment, it’s staffed by peers, and it’s a place to avoid going to the hospital. It’s providing that community network, support and resources to people – without having to call police. We feel like it’s one of the biggest answers that we have.

We get asked a lot from legislators, like, “Well, if we’re not going to do [CARE Court], what should we do?” And we have some ideas! We’ve started building a whole list of models that have we have researched… We have to make a commitment to being innovative and creative. Governor Newsom is bringing a spotlight [to these issues.] It’s not the spotlight we want, but it’s making us get out there, get together and catalyze change.

On June 14, 2022 CAMHPRO will hold a CARE NOT COURT RALLY rally at the California State Capitol in Sacramento. Let the legislators know: Mental Diversity is not a crime! Stand against forced treatment, say “No” to Newsom’s CARE Court!


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