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Official Eases Stance on Mental Facilities

May 24, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

The top mental health official in Los Angeles County said Friday that he would recommend keeping patients at two troubled private psychiatric facilities in Sylmar -- if another firm is brought in to run the homes.

Marvin Southard, the county's director of mental health, said he plans to make the proposal to the Board of Supervisors next week. He said he expects a change in operators to be an improvement for the 140 patients placed by Los Angeles County in the Foothill Health and Rehabilitation Center and the Sylmar Health and Rehabilitation Center. Both centers are for the severely mentally ill.

Golden State Health Centers Inc. owns and currently runs the two adjacent facilities, which house about 400 mentally ill patients for several counties, the state Department of Mental Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the last year, the firm has been investigated by Los Angeles County largely because of a high rate of patient escapes and patient-care violations, including an incident in which a patient swallowed a toothbrush and a pencil.

The firm was also fined $3,000 after regulators alleged that an employee at Sylmar had sex with a schizophrenic patient.

Foothill's administrator was fired by Golden State in late April after he wrote a letter that accused the county of singling out the center for extra scrutiny.

Southard said earlier this month that he would remove all of the county's patients from the facilities because of their poor records. Since then, about 30 of the 170 have been placed elsewhere.

Under his new proposal, the patients could stay but "Golden State will not be in charge," Southard said Friday. "There will be a new clinical entity with the kind of experience needed to run the program."

Dan Durazo, spokesman for Golden State, suggested that rather than sell the centers, the firm would explore bringing in a third party to run them -- but said an agreement is no sure thing.

"The company has been contacted by several interested parties, but the talks have been very preliminary, and the outcome of those discussions is not known at this time," Durazo said.

The county's contract with Golden State expires in June.

The county is hard-pressed to find a new home for its patients. There is little space available in other similar psychiatric facilities in the area, and mental health experts believe that moving patients to unfamiliar places often worsens their condition.

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