By Helen Thomson.
I spent most of my adult life in public service and I can tell you that the work we do is not always permanent. As a Yolo County Supervisor and a member of the State Legislature, I helped set public policy on many different issues; but many laws or ordinances are designed with a “sunset.” Putting an automatic expiration date on a new idea makes some people feel better about their vote because there’s a fail-safe if there are unintended consequences.
That was the case with Laura’s Law, a bill I championed as a State Assembly Member during 1999-2002. It was named for Laura Wilcox, a bright and engaging 19-year-old college student who was tragically killed, along with two others, by a man with a long history of mental illness. It happened at a Nevada County Mental Health Clinic where Laura was working while home on a holiday break from college. The man went there sporadically for treatment and his family had tried to get him to go more regularly, but laws at the time did not allow his family to require this man to be treated, except through the commitment procedures of the courts. They were told there was nothing they could do unless the man voluntarily accepts treatment.
Imagine the helpless feeling of seeing a sibling or an adult child sinking into an abyss of severe mental illness and not being able to help. Imagine the frustration of asking for services or treatment for a loved one, and being told there is nothing they can do unless the patient voluntarily accepts that treatment? Imagine being afraid of a loved one who may become violent toward himself or others without regular medication and having to call law enforcement as a last resort?
In the aftermath of this tragic incident in Nevada County, we wrote Laura’s Law to give families and courts the ability to require people who meet strict criteria, including a demonstrable diagnosis of mental illness, to accept treatment and medication. It’s known as Assisted Outpatient Treatment. Each County Board of Supervisors would have to vote to adopt Laura’s Law individually. And yes, we included a sunset date, just in case there were unintended consequences.
Nevada County was the first to enact Laura’s Law in May of 2008. County Health and Human Services Director Michael Heggarty cites some very positive results after they implemented the provisions of Laura’s Law.
- Hospitalization was reduced 46%;
- Incarceration reduced 65%;
- Homelessness reduced 61%;
- Emergency Contacts reduced 44%;
- Saved $1.81-$2.52 for every dollar spent as result of reducing incarceration, arrest, and hospitalization.
So far, 17 Counties, including Nevada, have chosen to enact Laura’s Law. San Francisco, Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles are among them. Several more are contemplating doing so.
Laura’s Law was due to expire on January 1, 2017. However, I am pleased to tell you that AB 59, carried by Assembly Member Marie Waldron and recently signed into law by Governor Brown, extends Laura’s Law by five more years. Now, with several years of real experience with the law, we have not seen civil rights or other abuses some people feared when we were first moving Laura’s Law through the Legislature. In fact, it is mainly being used as a collaborative outreach tool, incentivizing counties to reach out to provide case management services to hard-to-reach residents living with mental illness. It is helping these people stay on their medications, and live healthier, more stable and fulfilling lives.
It is my hope that with more data showing that it works, and now, thanks to Assembly Member Waldron, and with additional time for implementation at the county level, more counties will consider adopting Laura’s Law and incorporating it into their menu of services for those living with severe mental illnesses. State funds are now available via the Mental Health Services Act (Prop 63) to help get started. Over time, I am confident that Laura’s Law will prove to be a cost-effective treatment program. But more importantly, it is now helping to improve lives and perhaps, even to save them.