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Petaluma mental health clinic on chopping block

Carol West was going through a rough patch in life after immigrating to Sonoma County from South Africa 18 years ago. A stay-at-home mother, she experienced postpartum depression.

Then, she discovered Petaluma Peer Recovery Center, a free drop-in program for adults with mental health challenges. In the program, members help each other through problems by listening and engaging in creative enterprises.

“It’s given me a sense of purpose,” said West, who directs the Community Health Worker Initiative of Sonoma County. “We accommodate people who are not having a good day. People come together as a group and support each other.”

The 7-year-old program of Goodwill Industries of the Redwood Empire is funded through the Sonoma County Behavioral Health Division. The $75,000 annual investment has shown results, West said, preventing suicides and keeping people out of jail.

But the center, at 5350 Old Redwood Highway at Redwood Way, is in jeopardy of closing this summer due to budget cuts. The county’s preliminary budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes deep cuts to mental health programs, with no funding proposed for the Petaluma program.

“It’s on the chopping block, but it’s not gone yet,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “It was identified as a way to balance the books for behavioral health.”

A final decision will likely come during county budget hearings in June.

The county health department is operating with an $11 million deficit, with $8 million of that coming from behavioral health services. In an effort to continue narrowing the shortfall, department director Barbie Robinson this month proposed trimming $1.3 million slated for seven peer and family support service programs, including Petaluma Peer Recovery Center.

Rabbitt said the funding gap was due to the increased cost of services and diminishing state and federal reimbursements. He said he asked staff to prioritize programs that the county is statutorily required to provide, and peer recovery is not one, even though he acknowledges that it is an important program.

“No one wants to cut it,” he said. “It’s an upstream program that works.”

Laurie Petta, director of behavioral health for Goodwill Redwood Empire, said every dollar spent on the peer programs saves the county $3 by reducing hospital emergency room visits, psychiatric hospital admissions and law enforcement intervention costs.

“The program in Petaluma is small but mighty,” she said. “We were informed in late March and there was no time to cobble together resources. The funding ends on the last day of June.”

Petaluma Peer Recovery Center is the only one of its kind serving southern Sonoma County. Goodwill also operates a peer support program in Santa Rosa.

Rohish Lal, a spokesperson for Sonoma County Department of Health Services, said cutting these programs is difficult, but necessary to stave off the red ink while continuing to provide mandated services.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” he said. “We can’t not meet our mandates. Our revenue shortfall is large. We had to make cuts.”

Petaluma Peer Recovery Center is part of the Community Health Initiative of the Petaluma Area, a working group convened by the Petaluma Health Care District. Ramona Faith, CEO of the district, said the health care community is discussing absorbing the program’s budget, in the event that it is cut, in order to keep peer recovery open.

“If there are cuts like this, people won’t get the care they need and they will end up in the ER,” she said. “As Petaluma, we need to come together and develop a strategy to close that gap.”

For now, Petaluma Peer Recovery Center is still open three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There is a resource library, a common room where people can discuss their mental health challenges and receive support, a music room and an art center.

This week, West and other members watched “Crooked Beauty,” a film about mental health advocacy, and ate a pizza lunch.

“This gives people a safe place to go,” West said. “People come in needy and end up being part of the solution. It just feels crazy to cut funding to peer centers when we are trying to change the way of doing business.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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