By Lois Henry
In a move that smacks of censorship, Kern County Mental Health Director Jim Waterman has booted a citizen's group out of the county's mental health building on Oak Street.
The Mental Health Collaborative of Kern County had been meeting monthly at the Oak Street building since the fall of 2011.
Laura's Law was passed by the California Legislature in 2002 and left up to each county's discretion to implement. It was named for Laura Wilcox, who was killed by a mental patient in Nevada County, which is the only county so far to implement the law.
It allows family members or others to petition a court to mandate outpatient-only treatment without a crime having to occur.
The court can only act if a strict set of criteria are proved.
Among other things, the person must have a history of refusing treatment leading to at least two hospitalizations or jail stays in the prior 36 months or been violent at least once in the prior 48 months; have a substantially deteriorating condition; and not doing something would likely result in the person harming themselves or others.
In Nevada County, the court order comes with a "civil standby," meaning the patient is on the cops' radar. So, if they flake on treatment and get worse, they can be involuntarily hospitalized.
Aside from that, however, there isn't a way to force patients to accept treatment.
To enact Laura's Law, counties must have an Assertive Community Treatment, or ACT, program in place.
ACT is a very intensive, full embrace kind of program where counselors have very low caseloads, are available weekends and after hours and help patients with everything from meds to housing.
It's funded by Medi-Cal and has a good success rate.
One of the rules under Laura's Law is that you can't cut services to those seeking them voluntarily in order to make room for those under court order.
That means counties have to pony up the money for ACT teams for involuntary services, which can be expensive.
But a study of Nevada County's program released in early 2011 shows for every $1 spent on the program, $1.81 is saved in reduced jail and hospital visits by the severely mentally ill.
The Nevada County study also found that once a court ordered patients into treatment, most stuck with it even after the order expired.
Not to mention, many patients' conditions actually improved, which is kind of the point of mental health services in the first place.
Lois Henry hosts "Californian Radio" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.
A letter by Waterman dated Jan. 29 clearly states he wants the group out because the topic of its conversation wasn't to his liking. In his words, the group's focus had shifted to more of "advocacy on policy issues," rather than what Waterman felt was an appropriate "sharing of resources."
In a phone conversation Tuesday evening, Waterman told me his intent in kicking the group out was to "tie this group, with all its passion and interested people, into the Behavioral Health Board, which is tasked with advising the Board of Supervisors on mental health policies."
But beyond that, Waterman said, he felt he had no choice once he discovered one of the collaborative's co-founders is facing charges by the Board of Behavioral Sciences against his therapy license.
"These are serious allegations and he's leading community meetings in a county building," Waterman said. "There's an implied level of trust."
First, these are accusations, not a conviction.
Second, though the accusations are serious (some including sex with a client), I wonder how relevant they are to the collaborative meetings considering the co-founder, Russ Sempell, was simply providing meeting agendas and facilitating discussions, not treating patients.
Third, Sempell resigned from the collaborative Tuesday.
Finally, and most importantly, when you look at the timing of Waterman's letter and what he said to others, the Sempell charges are nothing more than a convenient red herring.
The fact is, the collaborative had become a big old burr under Waterman's saddle.
The collaborative's mission is to raise awareness and share information about mental health services in Kern County.
The group had become adept at finding solutions to issues of communication and connecting people in need with the right helping agencies and organizations.
Recently, collaborative members and law enforcement, which routinely had representatives at the meetings, began discussing the possibility of a kind of cross reference for 911 so if someone with known mental health issues called 911, that information could quickly be relayed to officers headed to the scene.
In the scheme of things, they were small steps, but steps nonetheless.
At the very least, the meetings offered people a low-key, informal place to share experiences and ask questions.
Too many questions, apparently.
At the last meeting on Jan. 16, several attendees asked Waterman to provide them more information on Laura's Law (see sidebar for Laura's law details).
It's a law Waterman has long been on record as opposing.
At the Jan. 16 meeting, concerns and emotions were running high coming on the heels of the Newtown massacre of 20 small children. Attendees wanted information, they wanted options.
"They wanted to know, if not Laura's Law, what other solutions are out there," recalled Fawn Dessy, the collaborative's other co-founder. "I felt a little bad because they did put him (Waterman) on the spot but they were good questions."
According to Dessy and other, independent observers I spoke with, Waterman hedged and couldn't provide other options. Ultimately, he told the group that people just don't understand how poorly written Laura's Law is.
Attendees asked if Waterman could come back and do a presentation on the law and he said that was a good idea. In an email to Sempell on Jan. 17, however, he said he would not be the one to do such a presentation and suggested someone else who might be a good presenter.
All was quiet until Jan. 30, when Waterman's office called Dessy and Sempell and asked for a meeting. Dessy agreed to meet on Monday, Feb. 4. Sempell left word with Waterman's secretary that he was unavailable until after Feb. 4.
"We had some discussion about the meeting and then he brought up Russ (Sempell)," Dessy said of her meeting with Waterman. "He told me he'd already been pondering what to do with the collaborative, thinking it wasn't an appropriate forum and then he found out about the charges against Russ."
Remember, Waterman's letter giving the collaborative the heave-ho was dated Jan. 29, a day before Dessy and Sempell were contacted to meet with him. And, Dessy said, at the meeting Waterman handed her a printout of the charges against Sempell that was dated Feb. 4.
Waterman couldn't say exactly when he wrote the letter, set up the meeting and discovered the charges. But he insisted his department is very open to community input, saying he has "literally hundreds" of consumer, family and community forums and groups that meet regularly.
"Our department encourages participation," he said. "We're in no way trying to shut people down."
I asked if those meetings/focus groups ever involve suggestions regarding policy issues and he said yes. But those people or groups aren't asked to hold their meetings elsewhere, I pointed out. No, he said. I asked how that's not a double standard.
"There's no point in arguing with you," he said. "I don't see this as a contradiction."
Besides, he insisted the real problem was Sempell's involvement. However, his letter 86-ing the collaborative contains no mention of Sempell.
"Yes," he said. "The letter only contains half of my concerns. I thought Russ would be at the meeting (with Dessy) so we could discuss how to handle the situation."
No. Waterman knew or should have known Sempell wouldn't be at that meeting.
Like I said, the charges are convenient, but not Waterman's real reason for getting rid of the collaborative.
It will be unfortunate but not a death knell if the collaborative has to meet elsewhere.
There is after all, a much larger issue at play -- Kern County's shameful lack of mental health services for all those in need.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org