When a Mentally Ill Child Becomes a Mentally Ill Adult

OC parents find they are out of care options unless Laura's Law is adopted

His 30-year-old son, Philip, has spent a decade suffering from schizophrenia and spends most of his days roaming the streets of Anaheim and Garden Grove. Whenever the elder Camacho gets a phone call saying his son has been arrested, he's relieved. "When he's in jail, I feel more comfortable because at least I know where he's at," he says.

Camacho says his son sometimes stays with his mother and stepfather in Anaheim, but as soon as Phillip starts getting paranoid and feeling confined, he'll take off, and no one can stop him. The family tried giving him a cell phone, but as soon as he felt they were trying to control his life, Phillip threw it on the ground and smashed it. Camacho says his ex-wife went so far as to file a restraining order against her son so that he would be taken into custody if he violated it. Kelly Thomas' mother, Cathy, tried the same approach in seeking help.

"What hurts inside is that you know it's not going to end good," Camacho says. "When his final chapter is written, there's going to be a lot of heartache. He's gonna do something to somebody, or someone's gonna do something to him. It's agonizing."

Now that her son, Matthew, is legally an adult, Jennifer Hoff can't get him the treatment she believes he needs
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Now that her son, Matthew, is legally an adult, Jennifer Hoff can't get him the treatment she believes he needs
Photos of Matt Hoff
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Photos of Matt Hoff

He adds, "I just hope I never get that call—but I know I will. I dread that day. I dread that day."

* * *

Under the LPS Act, any qualified California officer or clinician may issue a 5150 to patients whom they believe are a danger to others or themselves or gravely disabled. There are extensions available—a 5250 can a hold a patient for 14 days, and the 5270 for 30 days—but a court-appointed commissioner must uphold them. At a time when the state has eliminated a large number of hospital beds because of budget cuts, the process is rarely initiated.

What many parents or guardians wish for is the holy grail of control: an LPS conservatorship, which would allow them to legally make medical decisions for their adult child for up to one year.

Nomi Lonky of Yorba Linda was able to get a conservatorship in 2001 for her son, Jeffrey Hoblin, after being trapped in what she and other family members of mentally ill patients refer to as the "revolving door," the common maze of group homes, hospitals, jails and independent living.

While he was in college, Hoblin started hearing "very evil" voices, ones that "told him to kill himself," Lonky recalls. At 20, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective bipolar disorder (a sort of cross between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), and in the few years that followed, he tried to end his life five times. Usually high on meth, he would lie on the train tracks in Anaheim, where authorities would find him, and then take him to the hospital, where he would stay for 72 hours under a 5150. When his time was up, a doctor would ask him, "Jeffrey, do you plan to hurt yourself?" and he'd say, "No, I'm not going to hurt myself," only to return to the tracks weeks or months later.

Lonky says her son has always been "brilliantly smart"—he maintained good grades and was the lead drummer in a band—which worked against him in getting treatment. Mental illness is not an intellectual disability, and most patients can present themselves in a rational manner. And authorities won't hospitalize people unless they're gravely disabled, which is defined as the present inability to provide for one's basic, personal need for food, clothing or shelter.

"[Authorities] don't treat other illnesses this way," Lonky says. "They don't wait until you're on your deathbed. If you told a woman with Stage 4 breast cancer that she had to get sicker before she could get treatment, people's heads would roll."

While Hoblin was under a 72-hour hold after the fifth time he tried to commit suicide, Lonky and her husband, both health-care professionals, wrote a letter to the doctor. "It has become painfully clear to us that short-term, acute-care intervention is not working!" it read. She added that the mental-health-care system has simply been "placing a Band-Aid on a person who is hemorrhaging" and that without an extended hospitalization, "one of these days, Jeff will be successful in his suicide attempt."

The letter was enough to get Hoblin on a 14-day hold, and from there, Lonky was granted a temporary 30-day conservatorship (or T-con), and then a full-year conservatorship, with Hoblin's consent (which is required if a patient is not deemed gravely disabled). She immediately got him into treatment at Royale Health Care Center, a locked psychiatric facility in Santa Ana, where he stayed for three months. The program kept him away from drugs and got him adjusted to a medication plan. "By the time he came out, he was thinking rationally enough to say, 'I do need to stay in treatment,'" Lonky says. Nine months into his conservatorship, Hoblin got a job at a Wal-Mart.

The now-34-year-old Hoblin lives on his own in Orange. He still hears voices, but he knows they're not real, Lonky says. While her son still struggles, she believes that getting the conservatorship helped to bring him to a point of stability.

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