Laura Wilcox was a 19-year-old college sophomore with a bright future. On January 10, 2001, she was shot dead by Scott Harlan Thorpe, a 41-year-old man who resisted his family’s attempt to force psychiatric treatment, at Nevada County’s public mental health clinic where she worked. After the incident, Laura’s parents chose to advocate for forced treatment of individuals considered to have mental illness. This came to be known as Laura’s Law.
Laura’s Law is a California state law that allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment of severely mentally ill patients who are unable to make rational decisions about their health.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors took final action last Tuesday to adopt Laura’s Law. The board unanimously approved a five-slot pilot program in November. Under the leadership of Supervisor Wilma Chan, Alameda now joins 14 counties statewide, including Contra Costa, San Francisco and San Mateo that are in different stages of implementing the law.
Supporters of the law such as Steve Bischoff, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Alameda County, were unhappy that the pilot only included five people and called it “ridiculously small.” They will be working to expand this number in the future.
However, the team had to revisit the item after allegations that it may have violated Brown Act rules on open meetings. Dozens of speakers on Tuesday protested that the law could violate patients’ rights by forcing them to get treatment. Chan said she didn’t believe the board violated the law, as it only applied to individuals who had been repeatedly failed by the mental health system. The item was brought back for a final resolution regardless.
In Nevada County, officials found that a person forced into treatment usually returns voluntarily for the outpatient treatment, which a person’s family must apply for, Chan said.
“They find out it’s a good system, to their benefit.”
The law only approaches the hard-to-reach group of mentally ill people who are in serious predicament, deteriorating and denying treatment. It allows family members, partners, police and other designated individuals to petition a judge to order them into assisted outpatient treatment. The person is represented in a hearing by a public defender. An individual can’t be forced to take medication, but the involvement of a judge and intensive case work may help persuade some mentally ill people.
In Alameda County, 900 people are involuntarily committed on emergency “5150” holds monthly. However, as soon as they no longer pose an immediate danger, they’re found right back on the streets.
The program will take effect in June 2016.
Candy DeWitt, who spearheaded a campaign for the law, tried for more than three years to get her 26-year-old son involuntarily committed for his paranoid delusions. Since he was an adult, it was his legal right to refuse treatment. Even though he is finally getting the intensive treatment he needs, it wasn’t before he killed someone in the midst of a psychotic episode.
“Our tragedy did not need to happen,” DeWitt says. “And now with Laura’s Law in Alameda County, we finally have a tool that will offer the ability to get help for our loved ones and our most severely mentally ill before a crisis.”
Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health center that continuously works to provide quality treatment for individuals with mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders. If you or a loved one needs help to regain control of your life, call us right away through our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Sana Ahmed, Sovereign Health Group writer