San Diego care court opens in two weeks, promising hope for families dealing with mental illness

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Dana Pettaway keeps a small box with photos of her son tucked away in a cupboard. His playful smile is tough to look at on the days when concerns over his well-being fill her mind.

Pettaway’s son suffers from schizophrenia. Now 22 years old, he was diagnosed at 19.

“He was a studious young kid,” said Pettaway. “He got all straight A’s, he was interested in engineering."

That was until the symptoms started. Since then, Pettaway said he's been on and off the streets.

“It’s touch and go,” said Pettaway. “Let's just say I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Many people suffering from mental health illnesses end up cycling through the streets, emergency rooms and homeless shelters.

It’s a problem that is particularly serious in San Diego, where, according to the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, nearly one-third of homeless people in the county are experiencing mental health issues.

“That's why I am so interested in the Care Act and seeing how far it goes,” said Pettaway.

The Care Act was passed into law by Governor Newsom last year. It requires counties to come up with a framework that will support the goal of easing an epidemic of severe mental illness in communities. 

Seven California counties, including San Diego, will go first. They will be launching Care Court programs on Oct. 1. 

“We have really dug in, and have worked very, very collaboratively and yes, are very well prepared,” said Luke Bergmann, Ph.D., Director of Behavioral Health and Services of San Diego County.

Families, first responders and mental health specialists, among others, will be able to file petitions asking the court to consider ordering the respondent with a care plan that could include medication, therapy and housing if needed.

Once filed, the Department of Behavioral Health Services will launch an investigation into the respondent and do what they can to engage them in voluntary care. If that doesn’t work, a hearing will be called and a judge may order treatment that the county must pay for.

But even then, the individual would have to agree to the treatment.

“Just the fact that there is a judge who was involved and will be participating in the development of a care plan may lead to better results,” said Bergmann.

But Pettaway has her doubts.

“If we want to help the homeless problem, if we want to help people whose families are actually asking for help, we’re going to need to have some sort of involuntary care for people,” said Pettaway.

She says convincing her son to get care has been much harder than she imagined.

“The psychiatrist wants to prescribe him medication and he doesn't believe that he needs medication,” said Pettaway. “It's hard to get him to take it.”

But for now, Pettaway said she has no other choice but to remain hopeful that, for the well-being of her son and others, the program works.

“As a parent, you never give up on your kid,” said Pettaway.

The county expects Care Court to receive about 1,000 petitions for care per year but only expects about 25% of them to qualify for a treatment plan.

Meanwhile, if you are concerned about someone experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call 988.

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