California’s CARE Court program to tackle mental illness starts next month. What you need to know

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(LOS ANGELES) — California’s controversial new CARE Court program, meant to address serious mental illness and the state’s homelessness crisis, will go into effect next week.

Under CARE — which stands for Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment — the court, family and others can file a petition in civil court if they believe a loved one is suffering from severe symptoms of an untreated psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia.

The program, however, does not cover other mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are also other caveats, such as a person must be aged 18 or older. The petition must also include either an affidavit from a licensed mental health professional stating they examined or attempted to examine the individual within 60 days of the petition’s submission or evidence the person was detained for at least two intensive treatments.

A judge can then order a care plan for the person for up to 12 months, with renewal for an additional 12 months. The person will be set up with a team that will prescribe individualized treatment along with supportive services and a housing plan, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

The counties will be required to provide the services but are receiving additional funding from the state government, including for new housing units, treatment slots and behavioral health services.

The court can order medications, but it cannot be forcibly administered and if a person refuses to take it, they will not receive a penalty.

Seven pilot counties — Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Stanislaus and Tuolumne — are required to launch CARE Court by Oct. 1. The remaining counties will be required to do so by December 2024.

Newsom championed the program as a way to combat the mental health and homelessness crises plaguing the state and to prevent those in need of help from ending up in jails or shelters.

A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found 3.79% of those aged 18 and older in California are suffering from a serious mental illness.

Additionally, the state has the largest homeless population in the nation with more than 170,000 estimated to be unsheltered, according to a 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“CARE Court means new hope for thousands of Californians with untreated mental health and substance abuse issues,” Newsom said in a statement last year. “Today, our work begins to turn promise into practice. While we watch other places in America move swiftly towards more involuntary hospitalization, in California, we’re doing it the right way — community-based care, a focus on housing, and accountability for everyone involved.”

However, the program is not without its critics. Earlier this year, the Western Center on Law & Poverty sued to end CARE Court, arguing that the program is forcing treatment on people and is a violation of their rights.

The participant is required to attend hearings to make sure they are following the CARE Court plan but if they fail to complete their treatment, they can be hospitalized or referred to a conservatorship, according to the governor’s office.

“Not only is creating this new court system to round up individuals unconstitutional, it is bad policy subject to pervasive societal biases and disproven methods of treating mental illness,” WCLP said in a statement at the time.

The group also says it’s unclear how many the program would help and what impact it would have on the community at large.

The California Supreme Court declined to block the program from going into effect and the Center declined to comment on its criticisms to ABC News.

The governor’s office also did not immediately reply to ABC News’ request for comment.

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