A new court system pitched as a way to get those with severe mental illness into treatment is launching early, something county officials hope will help push people toward resources instead of leaving them languishing on the streets or cycling through jails.

Starting Friday, the state-funded project known as CARE (Community Assistance, Recovery Empowerment) Court will allow families — or other qualified individuals such as mental health professionals — to petition for a person with “untreated schizophrenia or other associated psychotic disorders to receive treatment and services to stabilize their symptoms and continue on a path of recovery and well-being,” a news release from Los Angeles County said.

During a press conference Thursday, County Supervisor Janice Hahn said the program is a boon for families who have fought to get their loved ones into treatment and out of homelessness.

“I talk to too many families who have struggled to get help for their loved ones with severe mental illness and we see too many people with schizophrenia on the streets,” Hahn said. “Through CARE Court, we will now be better able to support people suffering from untreated schizophrenia and their families who have historically had nowhere else to go.”

County Supervisor Janice Hahn speaking at the opening of CARE Court in Los Angeles County. Courtesy photo.

When the idea for CARE Court was introduced last year by state officials, it was met with skepticism given an aggressive timeline that aimed for the program to launch by the end of 2024.

Though the program is being implemented sooner than expected, several critics at the time of its introduction wondered whether counties would have enough housing available, where they would get the social workers to serve a population of people with severe mental illness given a massive statewide shortage. Disability rights advocates also raised questions about the ethics of putting people in involuntary treatment.

But, according to county officials, CARE Court is a tool that Los Angeles County, which has seen an increase in its homeless population over the last several years, desperately needs. Although participants will face a judge who can order them into treatment, nobody will be forced to participate, and there will be no penalty for not following the judge’s order.

To access services provided by CARE Court, a family member, clinician or other qualified people, must file a free petition known as a CARE Act, which will then be reviewed by a judge.

The judge will determine whether the person meets the criteria for the program. They include:

  • being over the age of 18
  • having been diagnosed with a disorder within the “schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders” class of conditions
  • currently experiencing symptoms
  • not clinically stabilized in ongoing treatment
  • showing evidence that the person’s mental health is substantially deteriorating
  • being unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision

“Rather than cycling through jails and emergency rooms, CARE Court gives vulnerable individuals (and those who care for them) another path to access key services,” the county said in a news release. “If an individual is accepted into the program, their CARE team of clinicians, case managers and others work with them to develop a plan that will provide services tailored to their needs.”

In addition to being provided medication and counseling through the program, qualified participants will also get free legal representation through the Public Defender’s newly formed and separately operated Independent Defense Counsel’s Office, which was formed as a response to the county declaring a state of emergency on homelessness.

Anyone interested in filing a CARE Act petition can submit one online through any electronic filing service provider listed on the county’s court website or at any of the designated locations on the CARE Court website.

People who are represented by an attorney must file petitions electronically, while individuals without an attorney may file petitions electronically or in person, officials added.