mentallly ill, rights

How Far Do The Rights of the Mentally Ill Go?

By Grace Lidia Suárez

The San Francisco Chronicle published a story about a beauty parlor owner who was almost driven to quit his business due to a woman who,

… came every day to plant herself outside the front door, strip her clothes off and scratch herself violently.

“With nails the size of a tiger’s — it was so horrible,” recalled Bibbo Saab, the owner of Bibbo Salon on Sutter Street. He said the woman would scream at customers and defecate on the sidewalk, sometimes smearing her waste on the salon’s windows and, once, throwing it inside.

He called the police hundreds of times, he said, and each time the answer was the same. She didn’t want help, so there was nothing they could do. Saab considered closing his business. He said he grew so angry and desperate, he wondered if he, too, was going crazy.

“She got me completely out of my mind,” he said.

The solution the beleaguered businessman found was not a solution at all:

He did finally find a solution to the woman who was wreaking havoc in his doorway — sort of. He told a local TV station, and a news story aired in late November, prompting visits from police brass and the mayor’s staff. The woman was hospitalized briefly, but she’s back in Union Square. She sleeps in nearby doorways at night, but she avoids Saab’s business during the day.

“At least she doesn’t meet her needs right in front of my salon,” he said, sounding pleased.

Sadly, these days that counts as success.

The situation is complicated. California has a conservatorship statutory scheme in place, one that attempts to balance the rights of mentally ill people against their safety and well-being, and that of others. It does not work very well, but not for lack of trying. If you want to take a moderately deep dive into the law, this Wikipedia article does a good job of explaining it.

In a nutshell, it is a process of “holds,” which begins with one 72 hours in length and can extend up to a year. (CA Welf & Inst Code secs 5000 et seq.) The process may only be invoked if the proposed conservatee is a danger to herself or others, or is “gravely disabled.” Judges and juries make the determination, and the person is entitled to counsel at no cost. The procedure is explained and its legality upheld in In re Susan T.

Welfare and Institutions code section 5008 (h)(1) (A) states a person is “gravely disabled” when as a result of a mental disorder, he or she is unable to provide for basic personal needs for food, clothing, or shelter.

Some San Francisco political leaders are attempting to change the definition to make it easier to deem a person gravely disabled (see SF Chronicle stories above). In my humble opinion, that should not be necessary. When the definition is applied to the situations described in the articles, it seems clear both the people described in the articles qualify. I think it just takes judges and juries who are willing to apply the law as written, and a willingness on the part of the state to provide safe and adequate facilities.

“Your rights end where my nose begins” is a common saying, applicable here. When the behavior of mentally ill people creates an unsanitary or dangerous situation for others, it is time for government to step in.

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