Written by Breanna Hardy
Dawan Utecht’s journey in Fresno County started with a rejection letter. But after ultimately being hired as director of the Behavioral Health Department over eight years ago, she is leaving it better than she found it.
Utecht grew up in Fresno and after going to school to become a physical therapist, she eventually came back to the Central Valley where she would oversee Community Behavioral Health Centers. Advancing in her position, she oversaw rehab, home health, long term care and hospice.
In the role, she saw improvements in the behavioral health center, but it was cut short.
“I lost my job, and I was kind of in a situation where I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my career at that point,” she said.
At Community Behavioral Health Center, the center had a contract with Fresno County for inpatient services.
“I attempted in that role to work with a multi-county collaborative on opening an adolescent unit, and the counties really just struggled with that concept and we didn’t get it off the ground,” she said.
At the time, her boss asked where she wanted to be in 10 years. She answered that she’d love to be in a position to impact legislation and the behavioral health field. When she saw the position was available at Fresno County, she made a pros and cons list on a legal pad.
“I decided to put my money where my mouth was and I applied for the position,” Utecht said.
After submitting her application, she was sent a rejection letter for not matching the specific experience required for the position. It required a graduate degree in behavioral health or related field, or related experience. Though her background was in physical therapy, she had experience running a psychiatric hospital and had a Master’s degree in a health care related field — but it required both the Fresno County Board of Supervisors’ and the state’s approval.
She took the risk, and got hired after approval from both the board and the state.
“I’m one of the longest tenured directors in the state now, and the longest tenured director for large counties in the state,” Utecht said.
Utecht will move on to work remotely at Telecare, a behavioral health care company based in Alameda. It provides behavioral health services on behalf of counties up and down California, she said. It also provides services to other states including Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Nebraska.
She’ll be helping them build business and respond to requests for proposals that counties put out in order to meet their goals.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking for another job. As I’ve said many times, including to my presentation to the board, this is the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it is rewarding,” Utecht said. “
Challenging work is ahead for the Behavioral Health Department because of CalAIM, which is the state’s attempt to restructure Medi-Cal.
“Probably pre-pandemic this wouldn’t have been an opportunity I would’ve pursued because they wouldn’t have let the position be a remote position. But the pandemic has really changed all of our viewpoints in terms of how health care is delivered and how our workforce responds to that need,” she said.
The new position allows Utecht to stay involved in the behavioral health sector.
“We’ve done a lot in Fresno County,” she said.
Utecht spoke of the different county relationships that benefit behavioral health.
Cradle to Career, The Drive Initiative, the Fresno County Health Improvement Partnership and First 5 Fresno County have all played a role in bettering the health and wellness of the community, she said.
“We have an awful lot to be proud of,” Utecht said, calling it a big, complex set of work.
Susan Holt has been announced as the interim director for the department.
“You really learn over time that different leaders have different strengths they bring, and different leaders are the right leaders at different times of an organization’s growth. And I think Susan is really perfectly poised and the team is ready to meet the challenges implementing CalAIM, and really taking the department forward,” Utecht said.