MORAIN: Will there finally be aid for severely mentally ill in California?

  • This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to protecting children at schools, or anywhere gun violence could take. It is also about how to recognize those in need of mental help and care.

In the language of Sacramento County jailers, Matthew Herrera is TSEP, short for total separation, a designation given to inmates who are kept isolated for the safety of themselves and others.

He must wear a "blue suit," signifying he is severely mentally ill. The garment, which happens to be green, is made of such tough fabric that it cannot be shredded and used for hanging or choking.

Karen Herrera last saw her 27-year-old son two weeks ago in the eighth-floor visiting room at the downtown jail. She sat on a metal stool and watched aghast as he paced behind unbreakable glass, his blue suit "open to the front."

"He tried to access the phone .<TH>.<TH>. and was having difficulty and became frustrated," she wrote in her diary, which she let me read. "He got up and began to talk nonsense and in rhymes about me, and he was flaunting himself and exposing himself." Herrera is a single mother who has worked 29 years for the state, currently as a management services technician for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and previously for the Youth Authority, where she came into contact with troubled kids, some of them like Matthew.

Her daughter, Melissa, works as a waitress and plans to enter a University of California campus in the fall, hoping ultimately to study psychology so she can help people like her brother. Compassionate though she is, she doesn't want Matthew to know where she lives.

At a coffee shop the other day, they tried counting the number of times Matthew had been 5150'ed, a reference to the Welfare and Institutions Code by which authorities detain severely mentally ill people for 72 hours. Ten, maybe 20 times.

He has been in the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center, halfway houses and two state prisons. He spent 2008 at Napa State Hospital, after a court found he was incompetent to stand trial on a burglary charge. He got out of Atascadero State Hospital last May.

Unless something unexpected happens, Matthew will take off his blue suit and get into street clothes on Saturday, and walk through the revolving door once more, no longer a TSEP. Having served the maximum time for his latest transgression, a parole violation, he will be a captive to nothing other than the demons who control his mind.

"They're going to release him to the street," Herrera said, exhausted. "Mental illness is an illness. It needs to be dealt with. The laws need to be changed." California has laws regarding severely mental ill people. But as Herrera and moms like her know, the laws are a maze, and too little money goes where it's needed most, although that could change, finally.

Senate Democrats including Lou Correa of Santa Ana, Leland Yee of San Francisco and President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento are turning their focus to mental illness, specifically how to expand Laura's Law.

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