Assembly passes Stern’s bill aimed at helping ‘the most vulnerable’

Henry Stern, 27th District State Senator. Courtesy photo
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An effort to help Californians most in need, authored by Sen. Henry Stern, D-Canoga Park, passed the Legislature on Thursday, and is now headed to Gov. Jerry Brown for a signature.

Senate Bill 1045 would establish a five-year pilot program authorizing San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego counties to create a conservatorship focused on providing critical services and housing to the most vulnerable, who suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues, and who cannot care for themselves.

“Currently, local governments’ hands are tied when gravely disabled Californians experiencing homelessness refuse services,” Stern said. “The old model of conservatorship doesn’t give us the flexibility we need to address the crisis.”

A conservatorship is a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization, called the “conservator,” to care for another adult, called the “conservatee,” who can’t care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances, according to the Judicial Council of California’s website.

The bill, which was also supported by Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, essentially expands and strengthens existing California conservatorship laws.

“People who can’t help themselves are dying on the streets, and our communities suffer with them,” Stern’s office said in a news release. “This law will give our local leaders the power to update and modernize our antiquated and inhumane conservatorship system.”

The five-year pilot program would focus on housing with wraparound services to care for those who are mentally ill or otherwise unable to care for themselves. Under the bill, a county’s Board of Supervisors would have to opt in to the program by a vote via resolution, as is the case under Laura’s Law, and ensure that no resources dedicated to voluntary services and programs are curtailed or diverted in order to support this conservatorship.

Once a county votes to establish such a program, in order for an individual to be considered for conservatorship, an individual must be suffering from serious mental illness and substance use disorder, such that those co-occurring conditions have resulted in frequent detentions under a 5150 hold, or frequently being held for psychiatric evaluation and treatment.  

Los Angeles County officials, through 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office, said Thursday they brought forth competing legislation, AB 1791, which was held on the Assembly floor due to concerns over amendments that were added to the bill in the Judiciary Committee, according to Eric Matos, Barger’s deputy in charge of health and legislative affairs.

Matos said both bills work to address issues surrounding conservatorship that have been brought to officials, “particularly, around (the term) grave disability, the concern where individuals who are in need of treatment and they’re having chronic issues, they’re not qualifying for a conservatorship because the current definition lacks the clarity needed.”

The current law is subject to interpretation, Matos said, noting the qualifications for someone to need a conservatorship state an inability to provide one’s self with food, clothing and shelter, however, the definition of shelter, i.e. a home and a lean-to under a freeway underpass could both be considered shelter, as an example.

The bill by Stern and Wiener also requires San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego counties to form working groups to assess the effectiveness of this new conservatorship, including collecting data that would be used to determine the effectiveness of the five-year pilot program.

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