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Family suing county over inadequate A&D services

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer


The family of a woman who died of a drug overdose is suing Plumas County for half a million dollars.

The lawsuit claims the county was negligent and failed to perform mandatory duties by not providing adequate alcohol and drug services.

Barbara J. Withrow died Dec. 4, 2010, of “acute combined drug toxicity,” according to her family’s lawsuit.

The suit named the county and its administrative officer, Jack Ingstad, as the defendants.

It alleges “negligence, fraud and deceit” and seeks punitive damages for wrongful death, and a writ of mandate ordering the county to provide alcohol and drug treatment services.

Plumas County has not offered formal alcohol and drug services since it shut down its Alcohol and Drug department in October 2008.

The Board of Supervisors voted to close the office after years of personnel and budget problems within the department.

By doing so, the county hasn’t received up to $500,000 per year in state alcohol and drug funding that it was eligible for.

Quincy attorney Jeff Cunan filed the suit Dec. 20, 2011, on behalf of Withrow’s mother, Norma Jean Hovey — who is guardian for Withrow’s four children — and Withrow’s husband, Michael Boyles.

Cunan said this is a case of the county trying to save money at the expense of the people who are the most needy.

“I think it represents a real tragedy of a county that has gone fiscally wrong,” Cunan said, “to the point that short-sighted money considerations take precedent over much deeper considerations — over morality and government responsibility.”

Williams & Associates of Sacramento, attorneys for the county, said the case should be thrown out because the county and Ingstad had no “direct involvement with Ms. Withrow’s self-inflicting drug overdose.”

The defense added that it’s not a “mandatory duty” of a county to provide alcohol and drug services. They said the plaintiffs were taking a “kitchen sink approach, citing a string of statutes to camouflage the fact there is no statutory liability for the county.”

According to allegations in the court documents, the county’s social services department placed Withrow’s 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son in foster care because they were in danger from 28-year-old Withrow’s drug and alcohol addictions.

The complaint stated Plumas County Superior Court ordered the county to make all reasonable efforts to reunite the children with their mother.

Those efforts were to include alcohol and drug treatment.

Nine months later, social services told the court that Withrow had successfully complied with her reunification case plan, according to the court document.

A month after that, Withrow died in bed with her 3-year-old daughter sleeping next to her.

Cunan said the treatment Withrow received didn’t include a licensed therapist, which he said would have been available if the county had an alcohol and drug department.

“Instead they had this puffy ‘how to make good choices’ group session once a week for 10 weeks,” Cunan said. “And (the county) called that services. … But it just isn’t.”

On the advice of county counsel Craig Settlemire, Ingstad and the supervisors contacted declined to comment on the record about pending litigation.


Dysfunctional department

According to reports and Cunan himself, Plumas County’s Alcohol and Drug department was closed down because it was “dysfunctional.”

There were reportedly personnel problems and recurring accounting glitches within the department that caused it to annually lose hundreds of thousands of dollars despite getting half a million dollars in state funding.

Despite cutting back the department’s staff and services, the problem came to a decision point at a Board of Supervisors meeting Aug. 26, 2008.

With the county facing budget cuts, the supervisors directed Ingstad to eliminate the program from the budget. The cut reportedly left Plumas as the only county in the state without county-administered alcohol and drug services.

According to the minutes from the meeting, the Alcohol and Drug department’s director, Sheryl Austin, told the board the department was facing a $590,428 shortfall for fiscal year 2008-09.

“The Alcohol and Drug department of Plumas County was a dysfunctional agency for at least 14 or 15 years,” said Cunan, who was the county’s district attorney when the department was closed. He said he agreed with the county’s decision to shut it down.

“But what Plumas County then didn’t do was look at alternatives,” Cunan said. “And there are lots of alternatives.”

He said the county could have contracted out the alcohol and drug services to private or nonprofit agencies and still qualified for the state funding.

“If you look at how alcohol and drug services are provided in the other 57 counties in California, a lot — if not most — of them don’t have county departments,” Cunan said. “All the state requires to receive the money is a county entity that receives the money and oversees the money.”


A&D services returning

While the county works to clean up the wreckage of its former A&D department — there are reportedly former employee lawsuits and settlements pending — it is trying to restore alcohol and drug services.

The process to bring back the services began nearly a year before the current lawsuit was filed.

In March 2011, the Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Jon Kennedy to “restart A&D services in Plumas County as soon as possible and continue it as long as there is funding.”

Before the motion, Supervisor Lori Simpson emphasized a “horrendous need” for the county to provide the services.

In June 2011, the supervisors appointed Public Health Director Mimi Hall as the county’s alcohol and drug administrator. The county must have an administrator to receive state funding.

On Oct. 4, 2011, the board voted unanimously to have the services restored and transferred $967,583 from the defunct Alcohol and Drug department to the Public Health Department.

Hall agreed to absorb the responsibility of administering the services without adding any staff. She said A&D services that the county couldn’t provide would be contracted out.

A target date for the county to resume the services is yet to be set.


The service gap

Although Cunan said he agreed with the decision to shut down the county’s Alcohol and Drug department in 2008, he didn’t agree with eliminating the services.

When he was district attorney, he blasted Ingstad and the Board of Supervisors for not taking action.

“The dysfunctional outcome was from the county just putting their head in the sand, Jack Ingstad primarily,” Cunan said. “They were just sticking their finger in their ears and saying they didn’t want to hear about alcohol and drug.

“I think they were afraid there would be wrongful termination cases, alleging that they shut it down as a subterfuge to get rid of these people improperly.”

Cunan said he felt the county’s social services staff did its best to fill the void and make alcohol and drug services available.

“What they did was they cobbled something together with mental health workers … good people, trying their best to provide A&D services. But it was woefully inadequate,” he said. “Not through lack of effort. But they just don’t have certified A&D treatment providers in mental health.”

Cunan said Plumas Rural Services has certified alcohol and drug therapists under the direction of Dean Tedford. He said PRS should have been doing the job.

“(Tedford) is sitting over there twiddling his thumbs,” Cunan said. “He has the skills but he’s not being given the chance because (the county is) not willing to pay for it.”


The victims?

“The victims are everybody. The taxpaying citizens who aren’t getting the benefits of their tax dollars because the county has chosen not to avail itself of getting back, now a million and a half, of our tax dollars,” Cunan said.

“A lawsuit is like the worst possible way to be dealing with this. But it’s the only thing (the county) will listen to. And they may not even listen to that.”

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