The 2021-22 Civil Grand Jury investigation Report released Sept. 7 found the San Benito County Behavioral Health Department employees fearful of retribution and the agency at risk of “hefty financial sanctions.”
The Civil Grand Jury investigation discovered there were lengthy waiting periods to get an appointment scheduled for initial and urgent services. Patients waited months to meet with someone. One person who sought an appointment on Jan. 13 was told the earliest appointment was Feb. 28.
Monica Hernandez, a community navigator with First Five San Benito, spoke at the Sept. 6 Hollister City Council meeting about her struggles to get an appointment for a woman seeking a recovery center for her substance abuse. She said it took a trip to the emergency room and two attempts to set up an appointment to get the woman services.
“If this person had no support, she would probably not get the appointment,” Hernandez said. “They made an assessment and in order to refer her to a recovery residential house takes one week. I tried to connect with them [Behavioral Health] and they did not answer for more than a week and this person is outside and something could happen.”
Based on the Civil Grand Jury report, the lack of services and support is not due to funding limitations. The report said Behavioral Health had to return a $12 million grant “due to the lack of spending within department and community needs allocated per line items, forcing the return of money.”
According to the Civil Grand Jury, which is made up of citizens who are sworn in to serve as grand jurors and investigate the operations of various government departments and agencies, “the organization has received multiple deficiencies requiring their placement by the California Department of Health Care Services to be put on a Corrective Action Plan to monitor compliance.”
Behavioral Health employees told the Civil Grand Jury that they had issues with senior management and feared reprisals. Some discussed the inability to complete tasks because of multiple staffing demands and high management stress levels.
The report also stated, “Newly hired clinicians work at the department to earn the 3,000 hours required for certification; however, upon earning their credentials, they accept employment in other counties, school districts, or private practice.” The overall investigation pointed out this is a common denominator in several county departments.
Gene Oler, a mental health clinician for Behavioral Health, told the San Benito County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 27 there were several issues they should look into, including closer supervision of upper management.
“It’s an oppressive working environment,” she said, adding that the supervisors are aware of the working conditions included in letters from staff. Supervisor Bea Gonzales shared copies of nearly 50 such letters with BenitoLink. Many of the letters supported Oler regarding the work environment. One letter ended, “Begging for help.” Another claimed the prevailing attitude was that clinicians are “disposable.”
Oler said recently a clinician resigned one day after being hired.
“Why has this sinkhole of Behavioral Health staff gone unnoticed and unaddressed for so long?” she asked. “It appears that Human Resources staff have not followed up relative to staff departures. Departing staff would not feel comfortable talking with anyone in management at Behavioral Health about their departure reasons because Behavioral Health management do not care that staff leave because of managers’ maltreatment of them. The bad managers at Behavioral Health drive away the good managers who care about the well-being of staff and community.”
Denise Quintana, chief steward for Service Employees Union Chapter 521, presented a petition to the supervisors on behalf of Behavioral Health staff because of the reported “dysfunction to the point that they [staff] have no confidence in the leadership presently in place: Grizell Rios, director of administrative services, Rachel White, assistant director, Maria Sanchez, administrative services manager, and Juan Gutierrez, administrative services manager.”
Amy Bravo and Michael Salinas worked at Behavioral Health and claim they are victims of retribution and bullying from upper management. Bravo said she was fired while at home because of a positive test for COVID following a campaign to make her ineffectual. Salinas said he quit after months of bullying from White and Rios, and not receiving support from former Behavioral Health Director Alan Yamamoto. In August 2021, the two founded Youth Recovery Connections, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit to provide drug prevention and treatment services for youth ages 12-16.
“Their overall care for kids is horrible,” Salinas said. “They just don’t care. San Benito County Behavioral Health has been the sole substance abuse care provider for some 20 years in this community. They’ve become comfortable. Somewhere along the line they began to believe it doesn’t matter how they treat people because ‘they have to come to us.’”
Yamamoto, who retired in April, did not respond to BenitoLink’s request for comment.
Hollister Recreation Services Manager and Behavioral Health board member Tina Garza said at the Sept. 6 Hollister City Council meeting that one of her children was receiving services outside the county because there were no resources available through Behavioral Health.
“I see him every couple months but I see him,” Garza said. “I sit in on meetings with the Youth Recovery committee and what they’ve done in three months is more than the county has done in five years.”
Hollister Councilman Rick Perez spoke at the Sept. 6 council meeting and then again during the Sept. 13 supervisors meeting about the pain he experienced when his son overdosed.
“Our kids are dying, and the numbers are going up,” he said. “I am not happy with the Behavioral Health Department. They reached out to me last week and said they were going to call back that day. Nothing! I didn’t find any compassion from one of the supervisors because it would cost money. You know what, when you put your lips to your son’s blue lips and you have to breathe for him because he’s dying, money does not count no more. You think your kids are safe? Everybody is susceptible.”
Behavioral Health was investigated by the Civil Grand Jury in 2014-15 and it appears that many of the issues have not changed.
The latest report states that the upper management is not qualified, and that the department is understaffed and undertrained. Behavioral Health staff told the Civil Grand Jury that turnover is high because of the hostile working environment and that they feel they receive meager benefits.
The 2014-15 Civil Grand Jury investigation, now seven years old, found that there was an “ongoing problem, for years, with improper protocol with drug administration.
“This has been called to the attention of management on numerous occasions,” the report stated. “The response frequently was, ‘I am not a doctor; therefore, I cannot tell a doctor what to do.’ Many patient grievances were handled by management, with little compassion. Sometimes the response was just a letter. Some of the management staff looked upon grievances with indifference.”
The 2021-22 Civil Grand Jury investigation declared its findings into Behavioral Health, “could potentially cost the county hefty financial sanctions if DMC-ODS [Drug Medi-Cal Organized Delivery System] should conduct a Medi-Cal payback audit as each deficiency listed causes the billable services thereafter to be disallowed.”
At the Behavioral Health Department, BenitoLink asked Juan Gutierrez for a comment. He directed BenitoLink to Monica Leon, the county public information officer. She was not able to respond before publication.
BenitoLink polled the Board of Supervisors on what might be done going forward. Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki said that the board has been committed to addressing issues in the Behavioral Health Department, and the Civil Grand Jury report reinforced what they already knew.
“The county has been reviewing and addressing the department’s needs since last year and will continue prioritizing more necessary reform, but this sort of overhaul does take time considering the vast complexity of mental health matters and challenges with the labor market with regard to hiring a new director,” he said.
The Behavioral Health Department has 60 days to respond to the report and the county has 90 days.
Editor’s Note: The Superior Court is now recruiting for the 2022-2023 term ending on June 30, 2023. Citizens are invited to attend one hour educational introductory discussions. To learn more contact: Roxy Montana, Foreman. (831) 524-2834
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