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Supreme Court Refuses to Bar Closure of County Mental Health Clinic

April 13, 1989|VICTOR MERINA | Times Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court refused Wednesday to grant an emergency stay that would have kept open the doors of the Wilmington Mental Health Center, leaving Los Angeles County officials poised to complete a shutdown of the psychiatric facility.

In a one-paragraph ruling, the justices denied a petition by legal aid attorneys, who claimed that the county is violating a court order by terminating services at the Wilmington clinic--one of three outpatient centers targeted to close.

County officials last week halted psychiatric services at the Wilmington center and said they would transfer the clinic's more than 120 patients to other mental health facilities. The three remaining staff members were also expected to leave for other jobs by the end of this week, officials said.

In a legal battle that began last summer, attorneys representing indigent mentally ill patients had opposed the county's original plan to close eight clinics and curtail services at five other outpatient centers for financial reasons. Stymied by the courts, the county revised the list to include only three clinics and singled out Wilmington as the first to close.

Hoping to halt the move, legal aid attorneys asked the Supreme Court Friday to keep the Wilmington clinic open. But the justices ruled Wednesday that they lacked the jurisdiction to intervene.

Instead, the court ruled that Superior Court Judge Barnet M. Cooperman, who had issued an earlier preliminary injunction preventing the county from closing the clinics, would have to decide if the county has violated his order.

"We read this as saying we have to go to Judge Cooperman, and we will go to him (today)," said Jim Carroll, executive director of San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services Inc., which represents some of the clinic's mentally ill patients.

The Supreme Court still is reviewing a class-action lawsuit brought by legal aid attorneys against the county over its original curtailment plan. Carroll claims that the county cannot shut any of its clinics until the justices review and decide the case.

But in announcing the closure of the Wilmington center, mental health officials insisted that they were doing so for safety--not budgetary--reasons. Steven Carnevale, principal deputy county counsel, said Wednesday that Cooperman had been informed about the county plans and raised no objections.

Smallest Center

The Wilmington clinic is the smallest of the county's 28 outpatient psychiatric centers and serves a low-income, primarily Latino community. In addition to Wilmington, county officials had said earlier that they planned to close the Coastal Community Mental Health Center in Carson and the East San Fernando Valley Mental Health Services Center in North Hollywood.

But Francis Dowling, the county's chief deputy mental health director, said Wednesday that no decision has been made about the fate of the two other clinics.

"Right now, we are not thinking of closing them until or unless the injunction is lifted," he said. "But if we were to get a series of (staff) resignations that prevents us from staffing those clinics properly, we would have to revisit the issue."

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