Column: These families are flaming the ACLU as California debates mental health care

Bob Britton doesn’t look like the type to curse the American Civil Liberties Union, but there he was at the state capitol this week, offering the civil rights organization some choice four-letter words.

The ACLU is a leading opponent of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to create civil courts to help people with serious mental illnesses. The group says this will lead to “forced treatment” of people without shelter, giving far too much leeway to police and others to trample on the autonomy of those who refuse help.

But as the uncle of someone with a serious mental illness — schizophrenia — Britton says people like his nephew sometimes can’t understand that they need help, and that ignoring this medical reality isn’t a protection of their civil rights. In fact, it shuts out families like his from being able to care for their loved ones.

“So f— the ACLU,” Britton said seconds after I met him, adding that he considers himself liberal. He was sitting in a short-sleeved shirt in a low camp chair with cute little fish swimming across it. His gray hair was covered by a panama hat and he looked ready for a day at the beach, like he might want to suggest that we get some beers because it was 5 o’clock somewhere.

“The alternative [to Newsom’s proposal] is prison and compulsory medication. So what are your civil liberties there?” he asked no one in particular. The ACLU was not present.

Bob Britton sits in a camp chair in front of the State Capitol in Sacramento.

Bob Britton, whose nephew has a serious mental illness, sits in front of the State Capitol in Sacramento. “The alternative [to the governor’s proposal] is prison and compulsory medication. So what are your civil liberties there?” asked Britton, who supports the CARE Court’s plan.

(Anita Chabria / Los Angeles Times)

That’s the frustration that drove Britton and the family’s other carers on an overcast August day in the final weeks of the legislature to wave their signs to lawmakers who have no political need to even recognize them.

These families feel their lived experience is being ignored in the debate over Newsom’s plan for CARE Court, a civil way of treating mental illness. They are fed up with serious mental illness being more of a political issue, or even a civil rights issue, than a medical issue.

Much of the controversy surrounding Newsom’s proposal has centered on what it could mean for homeless people on the streets, which is understandable given the scale of California’s homeless crisis. But there are also families trying to get mental health care for adult relatives before they end up on the streets or in the criminal justice system, where in turn these families usually have no say in the treatment of their loved ones.

And these caregivers lack political power. They spend more time helping themselves than organizing for joint action. Many have struggled for decades, banging their heads against a system that talks a lot about compassion but would much rather handcuff someone than a hospital.

“We are not family members who are there to push, command or dictate. We are the family members who learned [handle mental illness] in a respectful way, and we’re willing to learn,” Elizabeth Kaino Hopper told me. “We know we can’t fix it. We realize that we cannot heal it. But we can be a damn good partner. it’s family We will not give up.”

Kaino Hopper’s daughter suffered from mental illness after being attacked in college. Over a period of years, her condition deteriorated until she ended up living on the streets, sharing a crate with other vulnerable people. Kaino Hopper said she pulled a knife on someone one night when she felt threatened. Now she is in jail, found unfit to stand trial, and has waited for months for a bed in a state hospital – where she will receive enough compulsory treatment to stabilize her to return to a criminal trial.

It’s a story that’s been told to the point of nausea. Mental health is already criminalized, and these family members know it all too well.

Britton had just returned from Los Angeles, where he attended his nephew’s felony sentencing, who is being sent to a two-year sentence in state prison. To hear Britton tell this, the nephew, whose name he would not give me, began having episodes of psychosis in his twenties. Britton’s sister bought her son a caravan, but he stopped the neighbors by shouting and ripping out all the wires.

He ended up living at a Long Beach freeway exit, where his mother brought him energy bars and clean socks, Britton said.

At some point between the trailer and the offramp, Britton said his nephew served a term in county jail for setting fire to a dumpster on a cold night. When he was released, he was placed in a group home, where he was fine. He had a treatment plan that included regular injections of an antipsychotic drug. Britton says when his 44-year-old nephew is on medication he is “pretty clear”.

But then he moved to a one-room apartment, and the medication switched from injectables to pills. His nephew stopped taking them because “he doesn’t think he’s sick,” Britton said. “He kind of likes his delusions. And so he became more psychotic and that led to that.”

This is an attack with a deadly weapon charge for allegedly throwing a rock at a person who may have yelled at the nephew for begging on the offramp.

It’s strange for me to be on the other side of a problem at the ACLU, an organization that fights tirelessly for good. I agree with the group’s concern that depriving anyone of their citizenship, even one who is incapable of making their own decisions, should never be taken lightly.

In a June blog post titled “Why We Strongly Oppose the Governor’s Proposal for Nursing Courts — And You Should Too,” ACLU proponents argued that any “proposal that ties treatment to courts is in decline.” It dates back to a dark time when involuntary treatment of people with serious mental illness was the norm. It would undo decades of hard-won advances by the disability rights movement to ensure empowerment, equality and dignity for people with disabilities.”

And in her official opposition letter to the legislature, co-authored by more than three dozen civil rights and social advocacy groups that I also respect, she argues: “The right framework allows people with disabilities to retain autonomy over their own lives by providing them with meaningful and reliable access to affordable, barrier-free, integrated housing in combination with volunteer services.”

Critics also allege that CARE Court – which stands for Community Assistance, Recovery and Empower Court – may be unfairly targeting blacks and browns who are disproportionately diagnosed with mental illness. There is a real concern about racism that permeates almost every aspect of our unequal society. But I would like to point out that blacks and browns have been incarcerated for too long, which means they are already subject to more coercive treatment than those outside. CARE Court would actually keep more people out of the criminal justice system.

I’m really not condemning any of the ACLU arguments – we should be having real conversations on this topic. But the group discounts that there are many Californian families who cannot get treatment or housing for their loved ones. These families are desperate for a chance to change the horrific outcomes that have become our new post-institutional norm—homelessness, incarceration, and death.

There are many reasons for this — including a lack of supportive housing, treatment providers, and more. But we also lack the accountability and sometimes common sense that CARE Court could provide.

Because while we may assume that our most severely mentally ill are alone in the world, I’ve lost count of how many families I’ve met, like Britton and Kaino Hopper’s, who have spent their lives in the service of their mentally ill loved one only to be told at every turn that they have no right to intervene. They are told that their opinions are irrelevant and their requests for help are regressive because they would require their loved one to take medication, at least until they are lucid enough to make their own decisions again.

But if a mother, sister or uncle doesn’t have a right to help, a right to have a say in how their loved one is treated, where they end up and what happens to them in their most vulnerable moments, who does?

Our current response is police and criminal courts, and it is a pathetic response.

This column is part of The Times’ mental health initiative, For Your Mind, which strives to improve coverage of treatment, public policy, wellness and culture related to mental health in California’s communities. Column: These families are flaming the ACLU as California debates mental health care

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