County mental health facility facing 'walkaway' problem

  • A guard walks down the hall to the back door of the Sonoma County Mental Health Psychiatric Emergency Services building on Wednesday, October, 31, 2012. Mental health patients have been walking out through the back door, forcing staff to call the Santa Rosa Police department to find and return them. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

One woman threatened to stab herself in the neck. A man said he would kill himself and everyone around him.

They were among thousands of people taken each year to the county's mental health facility, perched on a wooded hillside between several north Santa Rosa neighborhoods. There, they were placed on temporary holds to prevent them from hurting themselves or others.

But the Charles M. Norton Mental Health Center, designed to be a safe haven for people suffering severe psychiatric disorders, is not secured.

About once a week, staff call police to report that a patient under a psychiatric hold walked away from the Chanate Road facility, according to a Press Democrat analysis of police dispatch records over the first eight months of 2012.

"It's a problem," said Michael Kennedy, Sonoma County's director of mental health services. "We would like zero people to leave. That is our goal."

While in some counties people are taken to emergency rooms or directly to psychiatric hospitals, Sonoma County's Psychiatric Emergency Services facility is among just a handful in the state designed as an intermediate place where people are evaluated outside of the commotion of a hospital. About 10 patients a day are seen there and the facility has at least eight beds for overnight stays.

At the Norton Center, a security guard posted at the front door is prohibited in most cases from physically restraining people who try to leave, Kennedy said. These people are patients, not prisoners, he said. When one tries to leave, staff often walk or run alongside and talk them into coming back.

Kennedy said it would be costly to upgrade the 73-year-old facility to comply with modern safety codes, which would allow it to lock its doors.

The rules require locked psychiatric care facilities to have alarms and unlocking systems in place so people can exit in emergencies, such as a fire. The cost of refurbishing the building could be very expensive, in the "six figures," Kennedy said.

"We can't lock the place," Kennedy said. "We have no choice, with the facility that we have. We have no ability to secure it."

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