Residents try to lock facility out of Terra Bella

(Rigo Moran)

Citizens petition to deny Ever Well mental health facility a special use permit after a year of dealing with patients wandering into homes and onto school campuses

TERRA BELLA – After a year of watching mental health patients break into their homes and wander into local schools, Terra Bella residents are taking steps to get the facility out of the community.

Over the course of two meetings, citizens raised concerns for their safety about Ever Well patients causing disturbances in the community. Although attempts were made within the last year to reach out to the facility to prevent patients from wandering around nearby neighborhoods and schools, residents have opted to take matters into their own hands.

“We were fine with it (being here in the community), but it needs to be managed correctly and needs to be a benefit to the residents that they serve,” Terra Bella resident Susan Craig said at a community meeting on June 6.

During the community meetings, residents claimed patients were coming onto their property and walking around without supervision. Community members went on to share concerns ranging from patients harassing children at the local school to breaking and entering houses in the area. Residents have made reports to local authorities to get a handle on the issue.

“A (mental health) provider came into town and they’re not running (their facility) well…but they’ve got a license through the state,” Tulare County Board of Supervisor Chairman Dennis Townsend said at the community meeting. “Now, we’re looking at other approaches that can have some impact.”

Terra Bella residents have now come together to petition the Tulare County Planning Commission to deny Ever Well, a state-licensed mental health facility, a special use permit to continue operating in the community.

This initiative came after a notice of violation was posted on Ever Well’s property. On June 9, Tulare County Resource Management Agency posted a notice of violation for opening an adult facility in an area zoned for a “group home or school for handicapped children.” Townsend said if the facility does not fix the violation, then the issue is taken to the planning commission.

If the issue goes before the planning commission, they will hold at least one public hearing in which they will notify all residents living within 300 feet of the property line around Ever Well.

Ever Well is a state-wide regional provider and chose to open a facility in Tulare County because it is strategically located in the middle of the state. The most effective course of action for residents to take would be at the state-level such as Senator Melissa Hurtado’s (D-Calif.) office or the State Department of Social Services, according to Townsend.

“They need to be contacting them with all the complaints, this is their (the state’s) licensed facility,” Townsend said at the community meeting on June 6.

According to Townsend the facility currently has 18 clients and Ever Well is licensed by the state to bring up to 100 clients to their facility – another primary concern of Terra Bella residents, all of whom have reported issues with the 18 patients already at their community meetings.

In an emailed response to The Sun Gazette, Dr. Christopher Zubiate, the president and CEO of Ever Well, stated that Zubiate believes the issues in Terra Bella are a result of the ongoing stigma against mental illness.

Ever Well did not create the social issues all California counties face, but we are doing more than most to be part of a solution. Any other characterization seems short-sighted and from a different century,” Zubiate said.

On the notice of violation, Zubiate did not make any direct comments on the matter as of current time; however, he noted that all the requisite permits for the facility were issued by the county and the occupancy was signed off by fire marshalls prior to the initial state license being issued in August 2019.

In his response, Zubiate said an annual state evaluation was recently conducted on the facility by two state licensing agents, which was completed on June 12. It was noted in his response that the evaluation received no deficiencies or citations. Not only that, but Ever Well also received a provisional license to operate 70 beds in another county back in January.

Dr. Zubiate continued to say that some of Ever Well’s patients do require higher public safety involvement; however, due to state laws upheld in superior court rulings, a patient is able to leave campus for less than 24 hours because they are not being detained. As “dependent adults,” the facility is required to notify the public if they are off campus for more than 24 hours.

From his standpoint, Zubiate explained that the county had received $1.2 million in April from the state’s Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission. He also said Dr. Natalie Bolin, the mental health branch director at Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), assured him the county had completed community education and CIT (crisis intervention team) certification for the sheriff deputies in the past.

“The rhetoric expressed at the June 6 meeting does not reflect efforts to address systemic discrimination against people experiencing mental health issues,” Zubiate said.

Bolin, who was also in attendance at the community meeting on June 6, brought a different perspective on Terra Bella’s issues with Ever Well.

“We’re trying to mitigate the stigma but I don’t hear much of that from the (Terra Bella) residents – they have valid concerns,” Bolin said. “There’s so much stigma already around these types of facilities, and we desperately need them.”

According to a study by the Rand Corporation, a research organization that comes up with solutions to public policy challenges, there is an increased need for open beds in psychiatric residential facilities in California – especially in the San Joaquin Valley.

According to the study, conducted in 2021, both the northern and southern regions of the Valley had the most sizable upticks in need of beds for psychiatric patients. In the study, it was noted that there was an approximate 4% increase in need for beds while coastal state regions like the central coast had a 0.8% increase.

Bolin said Ever Well first approached Tulare County a couple of years ago about contracting with HHSA as they established their facility, but the agency denied their offer and does not utilize their services. Even today, HHSA does not send their patients to the facility.

I was concerned about their programming, and what they would be able to offer clients during the day,” Bolin said.They also did not bill MediCal.”

Bolin explained that facilities which accept MediCal insurance are, in a sense, agreeing to an extra layer of oversight from the State Department of Health Care Services to ensure proper care.

With the collaboration of patient conservators (those responsible for making decisions on behalf of someone else), Tulare County only sends residents to facilities they contract with and approve their available programs. Bolin encourages family members and conservators who might have to send a loved one to a mental health facility to visit the facility and look into the programs themselves.

She advised conservators to ask plenty of questions such as the facility’s treatments and programs, staff-to-client ratio and number of clients. In an example, Bolin noted that Psynergy, a residential treatment center for patients with mental health issues, is a good example of a facility the HHSA would contract with.

“They have facilities up in Sacramento, and they are operated so well,” Bolin said. “They have a ton of programs during the day so clients have a lot to do, because they might get bored and start to wander.”

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