The peace and serenity of Nevada County was shattered in early 2001 by gunfire that resulted in the death of three innocent bystanders shot by a mentally ill local resident. One of the victims was 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, an intern at the County Behavioral Health Department. This tragedy set her parents, the state Legislature and Nevada County on a long and often controversial path that has resulted in Nevada being the only County in the state to fully implement an Assisted Outreach Treatment Program.
This program is the product of “Laura’s Law,” legislation passed in 2002 that allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment. It’s a law modeled on similar laws found in New York and other states around the country. But even though the program is law, it is not without its critics. In fact, Nevada County Behavioral Health Director Michael Heggarty candidly admits that even he had concerns about the program before it was launched. Two years later, he is a staunch supporter of the Assisted Outreach Treatment Program and often speaks of its merits throughout the state. The county’s latest data shows that the program has saved more than $500,000 in the past two-and-a-half years. But more importantly, its advocates strongly believe it makes the community safer and gives those being treated a new opportunity. Nevada County Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson oversees the judicial side of the program. He adamantly states that it is making Nevada County safer and, at the same time, helping individuals before it is too late.
All 24 individuals referred to the program in Nevada County had been in and out of hospitals and/or jail with a history of violence or threats of violence toward others. And of those 24, only five had to face court orders to undergo treatment. The others agreed to voluntarily participate in treatment. For some, this treatment has resulted in the opportunity to work again and begin the process of becoming active contributors to the local community.
For Michael Heggarty, Judge Anderson and other supporters, this isn’t a program strictly about statistics; it’s a program about offering a new way to help people who previously fell through the cracks and ended up imprisoned, hospitalized, homeless or worse. It’s a program aimed at ensuring the horrors of that January 2001 day are not repeated in Nevada County.
Congratulations to Nevada County for showing that “county government works.” To review a short video of this program, click here.
County Government works, which is why Californians prefer to have programs and services managed and operated at the local level. The county programs featured by CSAC during County Government Month are 2010 CSAC Challenge Award recipients. These awards recognize the innovative and creative spirit of California county governments as they find new and effective ways of providing programs and services to their citizens. The Call for Entries for the 2011 CSAC Challenge Awards is being distributed this month.
About David Liebler:
David Liebler is the Director of Public Affairs and Member Services for the California State Association of Counties. He can be reached at dliebler.at.counties.org.