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Ventura County

Board to Study Mental Health Service Deficiencies

Government: County supervisors will call on agency heads to explain why many juvenile offenders are not getting needed evaluations.

January 14, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Worried that juvenile offenders aren't receiving needed mental health services, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors this week will summon an array of agency managers to explain why.

Supervisors ordered the session for their Tuesday meeting after learning that judges are frustrated by an inability to get mental health evaluations for juveniles brought before them on criminal offenses.

Judges say the reviews are critical in deciding which offenders might be deterred from further criminal activities through psychological counseling and other county-provided services.

Conflict Between 2 Agencies Seen

In an effort to solve the problem, the board last week approved the transfer of one senior psychologist from the Behavioral Health Department to the Probation Agency.

County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston has also been mediating conflicts between the two departments over which is responsible for picking up the costs of providing evaluations.

"I will make sure they are cooperating," Johnston said. "If they don't, then you take it to the next level. That's when you replace generals."

The Behavioral Health Department, headed by Dr. David Gudeman, has protested that it does not have enough money to provide all the services needed. But Ventura County was forced to return more than $1 million to the state this year because it failed to provide mental health services that were covered entirely by state funds.

"We're not doing as well with the money as we could if everyone was rowing in the same direction," Johnston said.

Cal Remington, director of the Probation Agency, said he is ready to take on the responsibility of providing mental health evaluations. The agency had its own psychologists on staff in the past, so it is essentially a return to prior practices, Remington said.

Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand, who oversees mental health services, said he would not object to transferring some of Behavioral Health's duties to the Probation Agency.

"Probation should take the lead in providing a resolution for these kids," Durand said.

John Flynn, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said he welcomes a "healthy discussion" of the conflicts. But he said supervisors should not get bogged down in trying to fix the system's funding complexities, focusing instead on policies.

One thing he will suggest, Flynn said, is making rehabilitation of juvenile offenders a priority when the county opens its new $64-million juvenile hall complex in September 2003.

"Is its purpose to punish kids? Or is its purpose to try to correct their behavior?" Flynn asked. "If it's to correct their behavior, the health issues have to be discussed, and it has to be a complex that delivers health care."

Collapse of Merger Led to Troubles

The county's Behavioral Health Department was criticized three years ago when its manager at the time, Steve Kaplan, sought to merge it with the county's social services agency. Kaplan said his intent was to better integrate the county's mental health services, including those provided to juvenile offenders.

But the merger was rescinded after federal officials said it was illegal.

The resulting turf wars among department managers indirectly led to a federal audit of Medicare billing practices that cost the county more than $25 million in repayments and fines.

County officials now privately acknowledge that the system began to fall apart after Kaplan was fired and replaced by Gudeman, a psychiatrist with little experience in managing a $45-million government agency.

Durand, Gudeman's boss, defended the psychiatrist's administrative skills.

"It's been a very difficult three years for him," Durand said.

"He is very well qualified and his heart is in the right place."

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