New law offers 'hope' to mentally ill people who need help but don't want it

Stanislaus County leaders gave approval Tuesday for trying a Laura's Law program for three years.

Supervisors said they overcame skepticism about the California law that authorizes court-ordered outpatient care for people who have resisted treatment for severe mental illness.

Community forums on Laura's Law were held last year, and county supervisors in August ordered Behavioral Health and Recovery Services to develop a plan for a trial project, despite a consultant’s study that found little evidence the programs in other counties are effective.

Local residents who lobbied hard for Laura's Law adoption charged the study was flawed.

"It will bring hope to all of us affected by mental illness," Linda Mayo of the local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness said of Tuesday's decision.

Three staff members will be assigned to what county officials are calling a small program. Officials expect the program will start in the fall and cost $450,000 the first year and $1.4 million over three years.

Supervisors are hoping to see good results in annual reviews, which will measure whether the program is reducing psychiatric hospitalizations, incarceration and homelessness for those referred to court-ordered treatment plans.

"We are hoping for great numbers to justify us continuing to do this," Supervisor Terry Withrow said. "It is going to cost some money but, in the end, we will want to get a return on our investment."

Stanislaus is the 19th county to implement the law designed for adults with severe and persistent mental illness who have been arrested or hospitalized multiple times after refusing treatment. Those eligible for referral have been hospitalized or jailed at least twice in the last 36 months and have exhibited violent behavior.

County behavioral health staff will evaluate those referred to the program and persuade them to voluntarily comply with closely monitored outpatient services.

A person who refuses treatment may be scheduled for a court hearing and a judge may order a treatment plan. The individual has rights to legal counsel and may be represented by the public defender.

There are no penalties for not complying with the court orders, but the court process and professional attention gets many people to comply with treatment and improve their lives, advocates say.

Under Laura's Law, a parent, spouse or sibling of a person 18 years and older can make a referral. Other "qualified referring parties" include an adult roommate; the director of a public agency, treatment facility, nonprofit or licensed residential facility providing mental health services to the individual; a licensed therapist or peace officer.

The three staff members assigned to the Laura's Law program, including a mental health clinician, behavioral health specialist and advocate, will share office space with county staff at Stanislaus Recovery Center in Ceres for administrative supervision and support from a team nurse, doctor and clinical resources.

The staff members will follow up on referral calls to an access line and "Warmline" after the program is launched in the fall.

Funding for the program will come from the state's millionaire's tax for community mental health services and Medi-Cal billings. The program does not impact the county general fund, a staff report said.