Officials respond after clergy members air their concerns
By Jessica Cejnarand Anthony Skeens, Triplicate staff writers
Since a Eureka priest was murdered Jan. 1 after a break-in at his rectory, local clergy members have raised concerns over late-night jail releases and a perceived lack of mental health and homeless services that bring disturbed people to their doorstep.
Del Norte officials responded this week, explaining what they can and can't do when they come in contact with the mentally ill.
In some cases, "jails have become housing units for mental health patients," said sheriff's Commander Bill Steven, noting there is no other place in this or many other counties to house them.
Despite that, an array of mental health services is available here, said Del Norte County Public Health Director Gary Blatnick.
"Many people are not aware of the resources that are out there," Blatnick said. "When people ask me, they are often very surprised to hear what's available."
Father Adam Kotas of St. Joseph Catholic Church told the Triplicate he has to turn away people who knock on his door late at night seeking help.
"We really don't have services in Del Norte County for very disturbed individuals, who then look to the church," Kotas said.
Pastor Carol Layton of the United Methodist Church said disturbed people are turning to churches even though "we're not social services and we're not mental health services."
So what is the procedure for someone who shows up at Sutter Coast Hospital or the Del Norte County Jail with obvious mental health issues? And why does the jail release inmates so late?
Can't be housed locally
If someone is brought to the hospital emergency room with mental health issues, doctors and nurses make sure he or she is medically stable before contacting the Del Norte County Mental Health Branch, said hospital spokeswoman Beth Liles.
"If they do not have a medical need to be admitted they would not be admitted," Liles said. "That is when we could contact Mental Health. We are not a licensed mental health hospital."
County mental health professionals will go to the ER 24 hours a day to evaluate a patient experiencing a crisis, said Blatnick. If they're determined to be a danger to themselves or others, they can be put on a psychiatric hold for 72 hours. But since Del Norte has no psychiatric hospital, such patients are transported by ambulance to a facility out of the area, Blatnick said.
The closest is Sempervirens Psychiatric Facility in Eureka, Blatnick said. But because it is only a 16-bed facility, it often has no room.
Oregon is not a legal option, so "(we) go to places like St. Helena, Vallejo, even as far as Sacramento to use the hospitals in those areas," said Blatnick. "No one will go untreated."
Blatnick said staff members can also do mental health assessments at the jail.
"We go there on a regular basis," he said.
Violence at the jail
If a person is acting bizarre, but isn't a danger to himself or the public and hasn't committed a crime, there isn't much law enforcement can do other than speak with the individual, Steven said.
Still, about 35 percent of the jail population is typically on some sort of psychotropic drug, he said. On average, the jail holds about 110 inmates.
More often then not, inmates who become violent toward jail officers are going through "episodes," Steven said.
"My staff does a great job dealing with these people that are violent and they are dealing with them all day, every day, for months sometimes," said Steven.
Inmates who are being discharged are typically released after 2 a.m., a common practice throughout the state, Steven said.
There are a few reasons for that, including the fact that the night jail staff has more time than the day staff to handle the releases, and bars are closed.
The jail releases people from custody at other times as well. People who are booked and released on petty crimes have about an hour turnaround. And then there are court-ordered releases, a process that takes about five to six hours, Steven said.
More services possible
The Mental Health Branch offers psychiatric services, medications and case management to MediCal recipients, Blatnick said. The agency will also serve patients regardless of ability to pay.
In its 2014 Community Needs Assessment, Sutter Coast lists mental health and substance abuse among both youth and adults as a serious health issue. According to its report, more than 530 visits to the ER in 2011 were due to mental health issues.
Liles said part of the hospital's implementation plan for 2014 is to better address the community's mental health needs. The hospital has also offered to allocate $100,000 a year for three years toward a psychiatrist at the Open Door Clinic, she said.
Grisly case in Eureka
Treatment of the mentally ill is under a spotlight after Father Eric Freed of St. Bernard's Church in Eureka was allegedly killed by 44-year-old Gary Lee Bullock, of Redway. Bullock pleaded not guilty to charges including murder and attempted arson at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Monday.
Bullock was found twice on church grounds early on Jan. 1 after he had been released from jail at 12:43 a.m. following a public intoxication arrest.
During one contact with a Eureka police officer, Bullock was reportedly howling in a parking lot before entering the church. A side window of the rectory was broken into and the murder weapons appear to be a wooden stake and a metal pipe found at the scene, authorities said.