Opinion: Gov. Newsom, Listen to Disabled People and Rethink CARE Court

Tom Harkin, Retired US Senator | Special to California Black Media Partners

In my 40-year Congressional career, I had the distinct honor and pleasure to author the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and many other laws designed to recognize our country’s responsibility to remove barriers and expand opportunities for people with mental and physical disabilities.  Having grown up with a Deaf older brother, Frank Harkin, I learned from an early age what disability discrimination looks like.  I also learned that those of us in elected office will not make good decisions on disability policy if we fail to listen to our disabled constituents.

Recently, I became aware of Governor Newsom’s “CARE Court” proposal designed to intervene in the lives of people with schizophrenia and psychosis by spending millions of dollars on a new civil court process that would require people to participate in a care plan overseen by a judge if they are determined eligible.  If people fail to comply with the court-ordered plan, they can be referred for a conservatorship, which can remove their right to make decisions for themselves.

I am sure that Governor Newsom, who has been my friend of many years, and for whom I have great admiration and respect, is trying to be creative and visionary as he faces the complex factors that led to California’s growing population of unhoused people.  Since the CARE Court proposal is designed to improve the lives of people with significant mental health disabilities, it is critically important that this population be engaged, respected and listened to on the issue of how best to help them. 

Given the long list of disability rights, civil liberties, racial justice and peer-led organizations that have weighed in against CARE Court, it is clear to me that Governor Newsom and the legislators who are pushing this proposal forward need to put their advocacy on pause and take the time to really listen to the people they are trying to help. 

Looking at our country’s sad history of segregating, confining, sterilizing and forcibly medicating people with mental health and other disabilities, it is important to recognize that some of the greatest human rights violations have occurred in the name of helping the people whose rights were being trampled.  Governor Newsom’s proposed framework was designed to help people heal and exit homelessness.  He uses the words “recovery” and “empowerment” as part of the CARE acronym.  I am hopeful that, if Governor Newsom and his team sit down with authentic representatives of the communities he is trying to help, he will learn that court-ordered care is traumatizing, especially in communities of color, not consistent with recovery principles, and not supported by evidence.

I had the honor of serving with Senator Paul Wellstone in the United States Senate, who helped lead our work to expand care and services for people living with mental health conditions.  Paul famously said “Politics is not about power.  Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning.  Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.” 

I encourage Governor Newsom and his allies in the State Legislature to recognize that if you want to improve the lives of unhoused people with mental health disabilities, you need to listen to them.  If you give yourselves the time to do that, you will come up with policies that are more likely to succeed, and you will heal a rift that you have created between California policymakers and many of the strongest disability, mental health and housing advocates in California and across the country.

In this time when the radical conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court is attacking bedrock rights that have been protected by the US Constitution for decades, the last thing we need is a progressive Governor and a progressive state legislature to rush through a new system of court-ordered treatment, including involuntary treatment, for vulnerable people who have committed no crime.  

About the Author                             

Tom Harkin, a Democrat, served as U.S. Senator from Iowa from 1985 to 2015.


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