Constitutionality of CARE Courts Challenged by Civil Rights Groups

By Robert J Hansen

Disability Rights California (DCR), Western Center on Law and Poverty, and the Public Interest Law Project challenged the constitutionality of the CARE Act in the California Supreme Court last month.

The CARE act allows counties to place adults experiencing severe mental illness into treatment involuntarily. All counties must implement the Act by December 1, 2024.

“Thousands of unhoused Californians with mental illness will be threatened with court orders, forced into involuntary treatment and swept off the streets, not because they are a danger to themselves or others, but because a judge has speculated they are ‘likely’ to become so in the future,” the complaint said.

The CARE Act created a new court-ordered system of involuntary outpatient treatment and in doing so, stripped Californians with disabilities of their fundamental rights protected by the California Constitution and subjects them to a court process that violates their due process rights and their rights to equal protections under the state constitution, according to DCR.

The lawsuit can be viewed here.

Vanessa Ramos, Community Organizer for DRC, said, as a person living with a schizoaffective diagnosis and other disabilities, she is concerned and fearful of the CARE Act.

“What’s worked for me is access to voluntary community-based services. I truly believe that if we invest in these resources and solutions, people like me do heal,” Ramos said.

This will bring Californians with disabilities into court under an alarming new legal standard—whether there is the likelihood of a person’s mental health condition deteriorating or relapsing.

“The CARE Act unnecessarily involves our court systems to force medical care and social services on people. We are opposed to this new system of coercion,” said Helen Tran, Senior Attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

DRC strongly opposes CARE Court, stating it is based on stigma and stereotypes of people living with mental health disabilities and experiencing homelessness.

CARE court, according to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, was designed on the premise that many people can stabilize and exit homelessness in less restrictive, community-based care settings.

The court-ordered response can be initiated by family, county and community-based social services, behavioral health providers, or first responders.

“Individuals exiting a short-term involuntary hospital hold or an arrest may be especially good candidates for CARE Court,” the Governor’s Office said.

A CARE “plan” can be ordered for up to 12 months, with periodic review hearings and subsequent renewal for up to another 12 months.

Participants who do not complete CARE plans may be hospitalized or referred to conservatorship with a new presumption that no suitable alternatives to a conservatorship are available.

DRC also is concerned CARE courts will only further institutional racism and disproportionately impact Black Californians, who currently make up 40% of the unhoused population.

Current legal standards do not allow courts to speculate on a person’s future mental health condition.

“The state’s resources should, instead, be directed at creating more affordable, permanent supportive housing and expanding our systems of care to allow everyone who needs help to quickly access them,” Tran said.

Mike Rawson, Director of Litigation, Public Interest Law Project said the intersecting crises of homelessness and serious mental illness demand effective actions and significant resources, neither of which are provided by the CARE act.

“Instead of coordinated community care and permanent housing, the CARE Act sets up a compulsory new court system authorizing the deprivation of liberty and autonomy in conflict with Californians’ basic constitutional rights,” Rawson said. “Such coercive systems and treatments have been proven ineffective and will only serve to perpetuate institutional racism and worsen health disparities.”

In addition, DRC argues, domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness in the U.S. and research shows that housing is one of the main needs identified by survivors.

“Under CARE Court, a broad scope of people, including family members who may be the perpetrator of domestic violence, can file a petition creating a system for abuse,” DRC said.

CARE Court is a coerced, court-ordered treatment system that strips people with mental health disabilities of their right to make their own decisions about their lives. It will do more harm because studies show forced treatment lessens the likelihood of people seeking voluntary treatment in the future, according to DRC.

“The CARE Act seeks to trade in people’s fundamental rights in favor of an ineffective short-term system. DRC and its allies will continue to fight for permanent housing and voluntary services,” said Sarah Gregory, Senior Attorney for DRC.

Seven counties, Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and San Francisco are required to implement the law by October 1, 2023.

Los Angeles County has recently announced that it will be ready to implement the law with the initial cohort. The Subcommittee may wish to clarify whether the proposed funding takes Los Angeles County’s early implementation into account.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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