The Norton Center this week ends four decades as Sonoma County's primary hospital for the mentally ill.
Emergency psychiatric services will be offered at the Chanate Road facility in Santa Rosa, but starting Tuesday patients who need more than an overnight stay will be transferred to other facilities, most of them out of the county.
In some ways it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Since passage of Proposition 63 in 2004, California's money and energy has turned away from acute, inpatient treatment of mental illness and toward outpatient, community-based treatment.
The closure of Norton, once known as Oakcrest, is part of that shift.
"It's good in that it shows belief in the recovery model, but it negates the fact that there are still psychotic breaks happening that need acute care," said Jennifer Hedgpeth, president of the Sonoma County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Art Ewart, director of mental health services for the county, said the change does mark a milestone, but stressed that people needing help will continue to get it in Sonoma County.
"For clients requiring hospitalization, that can be arranged at any hour," Ewart said. "And as far as our emergency services, nothing is changing."
The county hopes to open a 16-bed inpatient facility to replace Norton, but neither a site nor an operator has been identified. Ewart said it will be a public-private partnership.
As part of the shift away from acute care, the county increased capacity in its Crisis Residential Program facility on Montgomery Drive in Santa Rosa. The six-bed transitional program accepts voluntary clients and offers psychiatric treatment in a non-hospital setting and is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Norton's closure has been anticipated since March 2006, but the timing originally was to coincide with the end of a lease with Sutter Health in 2008.
For the next several months, maybe longer, mental patients needing hospitalization will be referred to other facilities: Memorial Hospital's Behavioral Health unit on Fulton Road in Santa Rosa, St. Helena Behavioral Health in Angwin or Vallejo and the Solano County Psychiatric Health Facility in Fairfield.
However, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital earlier this month laid off staffers and reduced the size of its psychiatric facility from 30 beds to 18 beds. Memorial also recently closed an outpatient mental clinic in Petaluma.
"I think the big players are hunkering down and trying to maximize profits and the community is suffering for it," said Dick Kirk, a Sonoma Valley psychiatrist and veteran of the county's mental health system.
"So far the other players at the county and state level have not stepped up to the plate yet to help offset the impacts and, as usually happens, the people who are poor or chronically ill will be affected most," Kirk said.
Norton's closure comes amid heightened scrutiny of how Sonoma County deals with its mentally ill. Law enforcement agencies have had three fatal encounters with mental health patients in recent months.
In March, Sebastopol teenager Jeremiah Chass, who appeared to be having a psychotic episode, was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies. In April, Jeanne Hoyt was killed by her paranoid schizophrenic son in Rohnert Park. Later in April, Santa Rosa police shot and killed Richard DeSantis, a man with bipolar disorder who reportedly stopped taking his medication.
North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373
NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655
Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181
For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org