Linda Orozco (left) and Deborah McCoy (right) – Photo taken from Independent.com, Paul Wellman (photo credit)
For the past nine years, Linda Orozco has been looking for the impossible in all the wrong places. Tuesday morning, she may have finally found what she’s been looking for.
Since 2007, Orozco has sought help for her son, now 36, afflicted with the twin demons of schizophrenia and methamphetamine addiction. For the past three years, her son has been living on the streets. Orozco estimates he’s been arrested 20 times and committed to the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) at least six times, the latter for posing an imminent threat to himself or others. So long as he’s taking his medications, Orozco says, her son does all right. The problem is he tends to go off his meds. In the past year alone, county mental-health and drug workers have ordered Orozco’s son to detox facilities located in Los Angeles’ skid row, Oxnard, and Santa Maria. Each time, he leaves a day after checking in. This puts him behind the eight ball with county probation officers. For one such violation, his mom said, he spent six months in the Wasco State Prison.
What Orozco insists her son has needed is long-term hospitalization in precisely the sort of facility — known in the parlance as an institution for mental diseases or IMD — that doesn’t exist in Santa Barbara County. As a result, county mental-health officers are forced to contract with a handful of IMDs as far away as Sacramento to hold Santa Barbara’s chronic and seriously mentally ill. Statewide, there are not many IMDs. The few that exist can afford to be choosey about who they take, and they aren’t eager to accept patients with complicated criminal histories. It hasn’t helped, Orozco said, that county mental-health workers didn’t really believe her son was “gravely disabled,” the clinical finding needed to commit someone to an IMD. Because her son is a meth addict, many of his caregivers believed he lies. And because Orozco is forever rescuing her son, he tends to be better fed and dressed than he would otherwise appear.
Orozco and her family are no strangers to the revolving door linking the mental-health and criminal justice systems. About a month ago, she finally got whiplash. That’s when Santa Maria police shot Javier Gaona, another mentally ill man, who reportedly lunged at officers with a knife after threatening to kill himself. At the time, Orozco’s son had just walked out of a treatment facility in Santa Maria. In fact, Orozco said, her son witnessed Gaona’s shooting. At the time, however, Orozco was convinced it was her son who’d been shot dead. So, too, she claimed, were many of his mental-health case workers. Earlier this year, police were called to Smart & Final on East Gutierrez Street when her son, who regularly shouts back at the voices he hears, pulled out a small knife and started waving it about. He wasn’t arrested then. He would be, however, reported for indecent exposure at Kid’s World in Santa Barbara. Ultimately, Orozco’s son would be transferred to the county PHF unit, where he still is.
This is when Linda Orozco, normally soft-spoken and gentle, decided it was time to get noisy. She started showing up at the county mental-health department — now known as Behavioral Wellness — demanding to see the director, Alice Gleghorn, without an appointment. She demanded to see the medical director, Dr. Ole Behrendtsen, as well, insisting he initiate the conservatorship proceedings necessary to have her son committed to an IMD. For the past several years, Orozco has been working with a group of mental-health advocates known as Families ACT! This group has never shied away from making noise, and its members were only too happy to help Orozco rattle cages.
And for the first time ever, the report — prepared by Gleghorn and her housing assistant Laura Zeitz — detailed the most significant gaps in treatment. Most critically, Gleghorn and Zeitz provided a proposal for how those gaps could be plugged.
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