SAN FRANCISCO — Seven days after being confirmed by the state Senate, the official responsible for day-to-day operations at California's mental hospitals and prison-based psychiatric programs has abruptly taken an extended — and unexplained — administrative leave with pay.
Kathy Gaither, confirmed as deputy director of the fledgling Department of State Hospitals on July 8, will be out of the office for an "extended period of time" because of "unforeseen circumstances," according to a brief email sent to staffers July 15 by the department's acting director, Cliff Allenby.
Reached Monday evening, Gaither said, "I don't think there's anything I need to say. I'm just on leave.... It's private."
Allenby also declined to discuss Gaither's leave, saying through a spokesman that personnel matters are confidential. Department activities "are continuing as planned" under Allenby's leadership, the spokesman said.
Allenby and Gaither were recruited in early 2011 to reform what was then the Department of Mental Health after years of costly U.S. Department of Justice oversight at four hospitals that saw a rise in patient violence and an erosion of treatment in key areas, a Times investigation found.
Both have a long history of state service, including at the Department of Finance, but Allenby has been largely a figurehead. In recent court testimony, Gaither described her duties as "all the day-to-day operations and policy decision-making for the entire department." The position was listed in 2012 as paying $147,660 annually.
Under her direction, a streamlined Department of State Hospitals was formed, made up of the state's five hospitals and two prison-based programs that care predominantly for mentally ill people accused or convicted of crimes.
To bridge its nearly $200-million budget gap, Gaither slashed positions, reduced clinical staffing per patient and abandoned a number of treatment reforms deemed cumbersome, ineffective or too costly. She did so as federal civil rights attorneys freed three of four hospitals from court oversight. (Napa State Hospital expects to be released this summer.)
In a separate case, the result of a long-standing class-action lawsuit by mentally ill prisoners, a federal judge earlier this month ordered a special master to investigate Department of State Hospitals programs at Salinas Valley and Vacaville state prisons after hearing days of testimony about psychiatrist shortages, delays in treatment and a dearth of soap and clean underwear for sick inmates.
Problems at Salinas Valley Psychiatric Program came to light in January, when nine psychiatrists wrote a letter to the facility's then-executive director — copied to Gaither's office — saying that high patient loads were "not safe or appropriate." Gaither denied the allegations but overhauled the program's leadership. Atascadero State Hospital psychiatrists also wrote a letter to that facility's executive director this spring, citing shortages among their ranks.
Attorney Michael Bien, who represents California's mentally ill prisoners in the class-action case overseen by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, said the department was "in crisis" even before Gaither's departure. "They don't seem to have strong clear leadership standing up for the healthcare interests [of patients] and standing up to finance and the governor's office," he said.