As Orange County and others prepare to roll out the state’s new mental health court by October, disability rights groups are moving to block its implementation.

The framework for CARE Courts, co-authored by local state Sen. Tom Umberg and championed by Governor Gavin Newsom, focuses on people who are likely to develop mental illness or substance abuse, and seeks to put them in front of judges and into forced treatment programs.

Read: California’s CARE Court: A Step in the Right Direction or ‘Terrifying’ Step Backwards?

It’s become the center of a long-brewing battle over what’s truly causing homelessness across the state: Mental health issues, or a lack of affordable housing? 

Proponents of the court system have honed in on the former, painting CARE Court as a “voluntary” system that not only focuses on the unhoused, but seeks to get anyone with mental health issues into treatment before – not after – a tragedy.

But critics like Disability Rights California, which filed a petition on Thursday to strike the law completely in the state Supreme Court, say the new system scapegoats the mentally ill for California’s public camping crisis and will sweep them off the streets without any guarantee of housing. 

“​​How can something be voluntary when there are consequences for not following through with your CARE plan? When someone decides where you live, what medical treatment you should have?” said Kelechi Ubozoh, a mental health advocate speaking at the news conference. 

Non-compliance with CARE Court could land some defendants into a referral for conservatorship, under the law. 

“If we’ve learned anything from the #FreeBritney movement, which took a mega pop star with a huge fan base 13 years to be released, what is the trajectory for Black and Indigenous people of color who are trans, queer communities or white folks with no resources?” Ubozoh said.

On its face, CARE Court “seeks to trade in people’s fundamental rights in favor of an ineffective short-term system of government,” said Sarah Gregory, a senior attorney with Disability Rights California.

Gregory called the system “coerced treatment” that “utterly fails to provide the housing and services that we all know is what is actually needed here, and it does so on the basis of vague and ambiguous criteria that fly in the face of our due process guarantee.”

“That’s a radical break from what California has historically done, and it perpetuates deep rooted inequities,” Gregory said. 

Reacting to the lawsuit in a phone interview, Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee said challenges in court are to be “expected.”

“Putting people in a system somewhat against their will — I think there needs to be some additional legislation out of the legislature to clarify some stuff,” Chaffee said. “Some of these things will have to be sorted out through litigation.”

Umberg reacted to the lawsuit in a written statement, saying “the purpose of CARE Courts is to provide a structure with accountability to ensure that those who have been unreachable in society are given the very best opportunity to become well and productive.” 

“I understand and empathize with the concerns raised thus far. But what I do know, deep down, is that there is no humanity or due process in the current state of affairs with homelessness and mental health,” Umberg wrote. “CARE Court represents a big idea and a holistic approach to this complicated crisis.”

The state Supreme Court usually decides within 90 days whether to take up a petition. 

Newsom, who dismissed CARE Court critics last year as “four-letter groups” standing in the way of investments into treatment, heralded the bill at various events and news conferences, touting support from health care providers, big city mayors, and first responders.

“You know, who wasn’t there? People with mental health disabilities and the organizations representing them,” said Debra Roth, a senior policy advocate with DRC at the new conference. 

Roth continued:

“Rarely if ever have I seen something so massive, so costly, and so controversial go through the legislative process so quickly, without significant open debate or the opportunity for large stakeholder conversations with people directly impacted by the proposed law.”

In the meantime, the County of Orange is one of several in California that have stepped forward for early implementation of the court treatment system. 

The last federally-required headcount last year tallied more than 5,700 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Orange County, a decrease from the previous 2019 count, though homeless advocates warned some people out there were likely missed. 

Of those counted in the last report, 1,633 people were reported having substance abuse issues, and 1,445 with mental health issues. More than 2,400 were reported as chronically homeless.

“We expect to continue doing what we need to do so we don’t wind up behind on anything,” Chaffee said of local CARE Court implementation. “Litigation won’t stop us from doing what we need to do.”

Likewise, disability rights advocates at the news conference said there are other avenues if the state court doesn’t take their petition.

“Without getting into legal strategy, there’s always the option to refile in a lower court and hear the case that way.”

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