Eighty-five-year-old Gainel Hamilton smiles ear-to-ear as her family files into her room in the locked section of San Miguel Villa, in Concord. When Hamilton’s son, Robin Andre Flippin, walks in with a bouquet of flowers and approaches her bedside, Hamilton begins shaking and tears flow down her cheeks.
“I’m blessed!” she says, as she pulls her son down closer to study his face. “I’m blessed.”
“Yes you are, Mama,” say Hamilton’s daughters, Faye Conaway and Julia Ford. Flippin holds his mother’s hand as she clings tightly to his. It’s a big day for both of them, and it’s been a long time coming.
It’s Flippin’s first day in the free world after spending the past decade incarcerated at California State Prison in Vacaville. And it’s Hamilton’s first time seeing her youngest of six children during that time span. Hamilton has stayed at the Concord facility since being conserved in 2017 by the state of California.
“I’m so happy to see my son,” Hamilton says. “I don’t want to let go of his hand. I feel like running. I’ve got my son back. I’m ready to go home.”
“We’re trying, Mama,” Ford assures her.
Flippin’s wife and 22-year-old daughter, who’s now a college student, stand by his side as he holds his mother’s hand. Flippin says he needed to begin his first day in the free world with the person most central to his existence.
“Possibilities are unlimited, but I had to start here with my mom,” says Flippin. “I want to spend as much time as possible with her, and hopefully one day she gets out of here and spends time with all her grandkids and children.”
This family’s next step is to get 85-year-old Hamilton out. This family has endured generations of struggle, systemic racism, classism and trauma—collectively they’ve experienced poverty, chemical dependency, interpersonal violence, homelessness and bouts of incarceration.
Hamilton isn’t incarcerated in the traditional sense. She’s held in a locked behavioral health section of San Miguel Villa. This is where she landed after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and conserved by the state of California in July 2017.
“We signed Mom over to the state thinking it was the right thing to do at the time. We didn’t know we wouldn’t be able to get her back when she was better,” says Julia Ford, Hamilton’s 62-year-old daughter who’s also a certified nursing assistant.
Life has never been particularly easy for Hamilton or her children. “Imagine trying to take care of six kids on a welfare budget, but she did it,” Ford says. “I used to pick up cans to recycle or hula hoop or do whatever I could to help Mom.”
She says her mother endured not only adverse childhood experiences as a Black child growing up in Oakland, but also adverse adult experiences. She remembers helping her mom get ready to go to a ball with a man, who instead tried to make her turn tricks. When she refused, the man beat Hamilton, who ran home but never called the police. All of this, Ford believes, took a toll on her mom’s mental health.
Later in life, Gainel married George Hamilton, a man who Ford says was the family’s saving grace. “That man provided for Mama and bought her a house in Oakland. When he got sick, Mom stayed there with him and cared for him and her mother,” Ford says. “She got a small amount [of money] for caring for her mom, but nothing for her husband. She used to be scared about what would happen when her mom and her husband died. I told her it would be OK. I used to help her pay for groceries and bills.”
After her husband and mother died, Hamilton started doing out-of-the-ordinary things. She essentially abandoned her home and hopped among her children’s houses.
“She would stay for a while and then leave,” Ford says. “I’d go looking for her and bring her home, and she’d leave again. Sometimes she took her walker over to the homeless encampment and got help sleeping on a bench and put her feet up on her walker, or took a bus to Vegas to find my brother. She kept moving without telling anyone.”
At another point, Hamilton jumped out of a moving car. That’s when Hamilton’s children agreed to have their mother conserved, without realizing it would be nearly impossible for them to reverse the conservatorship or change it in the future.
“Mom ended up at Kaiser,” Ford says. “She had a 5152 and they were trying to diagnose her and, finally, we learned that she had bipolar disorder. We signed her away so she could get the help that she needed because at the time we didn’t feel equipped to care for her.”
Now that Hamilton’s meds have been stabilized and Ford has years of experience as a certified nursing assistant, Ford would do anything to be able to care for her own mother. Instead, Ford is part of a round-the-clock team that provides in-home care for elderly patients in Contra Costa County. She wishes more than anything that she could care for her own mother, the way her mother always cared for others.
“We signed her over to the state because we believed it was the right thing to do, and now the state should be good enough to give her guardianship back to us,” Ford says. “I’m ready to call the governor. I’m ready to call the president. I’m ready to call Jesus.”
As California lawmakers push forward a bouquet of mental health Senate and assembly bills, Ford and her siblings may face an uphill battle getting their mother into their care.
In October of this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman signed Senate Bill 43, to modernize the state’s conservatorship laws for the first time in a half-century. According to Newsom’s website, “The law updates the definition of those eligible for conservatorship to include people who are unable to provide for their personal safety or necessary medical care, in addition to food, clothing, or shelter, due to either substance use disorders or serious mental health issues.”
This fall, California lawmakers also greenlighted SB326, the Mental Health Modernization Act, which redirects a portion of mental health funds to go toward securing some 11,000 beds in mental health facilities and creating outpatient services for thousands more. While from the 10,000-foot view these measures may sound good or at least “well-intentioned,” those on the ground say they risk harming the same people they’re purporting to help.
“Nobody conserved Gov. Newsom when it came out that he had a problem with alcohol,” says Maurice Byrd, a licensed therapist who works with unhoused people with mental health and substance dependency issues. “This is aimed at Black and brown people.”
Another problem with conservatorships, Byrd says, is that they’re not community or family-oriented and remove agency from the impacted individuals. “We know that when people get to make their own decisions and set their own goals, they’re more successful at getting the help they need,” he says.
Ford knows just what Byrd is talking about—both in terms of her mother’s journey and her own. Looking back, she understands her mother’s erratic behavior following the loss of two people she loved, lived with and cared for.
“I think she was lonely and grieving,” Ford says. “She wanted community and to be close to her grandchildren, and she didn’t know how to say that.”
Ford herself relied on community programs along the way. As Ford worked through her own struggles with dependency while living on the street, her mother helped to raise Ford’s daughter before she connected with Black Panther Majeedah Rahman’s Healthy Babies Project and, later, a 12-step recovery program. After Ford achieved sobriety, her hands were full caring for her own children, but she wishes she had done more to help care for her mother’s husband and mother, along with Hamilton.
“I went to church and started talking to people, and that’s how I learned about a certified nursing assistant program,” Ford says. “I think God wants me to take care of people. When I did the program to become a CNA, I never knew that my mom would one day need my help or that my husband would be a victim of a violent crime or that my grandkids would need care when they became victims of violent crimes.”
Since time can’t be turned back, and Ford and her siblings can’t unsign the rights to their mother, they are cautiously hopeful for a miracle. With the help of a public defender, the family has made the case to the courts—albeit unsuccessfully so far—to regain custody and the right to care for Gainel Hamilton.
“Mama asks me when she’s coming home,” Ford says. “She tells me she doesn’t want to die here. She wants to be home with her family and grandchildren.”
Ford’s journey of trying to get her mom home has been both depressing and difficult, as if the finish line keeps moving. “It’s hard,” she says. “I would take off from work, rush to my sister’s place for court on Zoom, and the court date gets moved. This has been happening for so long.”
In the meantime, on the off-chance that a miracle happens in 85-year-old Gainel Hamilton’s remaining time on Earth, Ford has a room all set up for her. “I have a master bedroom with a patio door,” she says. “We’d put her hospital bed in there, and I’d make sure she got her medicine and got to all her appointments.”
When asked what it would mean if she could care for her mom, Ford says: “Oooooh honey, I would love to take her. It would be so much fun for my mom to be around all her grandkids and family. My house would be the place where everyone meets. We’ll eat her favorite meals. Braid each other’s hair. It will be a dream.”