Laura’s Law: Court-ordered psych treatment considered for Stanislaus County

Rick DeGette
Rick DeGette Courtesy of Rick DeGette

Mental health advocates are hoping that Stanislaus County leaders will implement a state law that enables counties to seek court-ordered outpatient treatment for people with serious mental disorders.

A growing number of counties have chosen to create Laura’s Law treatment programs for people with a history of not complying with mental health treatment.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Stanislaus chapter is pushing for a local program and gleaned advice from experts at a well-attended meeting Thursday. The 2003 law is named for college student Laura Wilcox, who was shot and killed in Nevada County by a delusional man who had refused psychiatric treatment.

Eighteen counties in California have adopted Laura’s Law, including San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa. Stanislaus County officials said have not committed yet, but are putting together a fact-finding process to explore it.

“We will get all the facts about Laura’s Law and compare it with what we are doing now, and decide if it’s a good thing to do,” said county Supervisor Terry Withrow, who serves on the county Mental Health Board. “Some counties have put it in place and others don’t think it is good at all.”

Withrow said the county is already “laser-focused on this population” through the Focus on Prevention initiative on homelessness and mandates to assist criminal offenders with mental illness.

Laura’s Law tries to help adults who are edging close to an involuntary 72-hour hold or an incident that could turn violent or land them in jail.

In a few weeks, the Board of Supervisors is expected to consider a funding request to hire a consultant for the fact-finding and public education process. Local groups are expected to get involved with exploring Laura’s Law early next year, with the process including a survey and examination of local resources available to support a program, said Richard DeGette, director of county Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

The fact-finding will culminate with a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors.

“It is important to collect as much information as we can from the community and see what the needs are and then proceed from there,” said DeGette, who was hired last summer and previously worked for Alameda County.

Participants also need to consider how law enforcement and other local agencies could be involved with a Laura’s Law program.

About 80 people attended Thursday’s meeting at the NAMI center in Modesto, among them representatives of the county, Modesto police and Sheriff’s Department, state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani’s office and the public. The audience learned about the law from guest speakers Randall Hagar of the California Psychiatric Association and Douglas Dunn, a NAMI vice president in Contra Costa County.

County cost savings

Dunn said it took almost three years to convince Contra Costa’s top officials, who became more receptive to adopting Laura’s Law when they realized it could reduce $1,500-a-day hospitalization costs and jail expenses.

The law is a tool for getting people into community-supported outpatient treatment. A state law permits involuntary 72-hour holds for people who are in danger of harming themselves or others because of a mental health condition, but there is no guarantee they will continue with treatment after release from emergency care.

Counties can choose whether to participate in Laura’s Law. Before adopting the statute, local treatment resources must be in place, as well as substance abuse and vocational services and housing.

County behavioral health conducts an investigation and outreach when a person is referred. If the person agrees to treatment, he or she accepts a service plan with strict monitoring and reporting requirements for the agency. If the person does not accept what’s known as Assertive Community Treatment, a petition can be filed to hold a court hearing within 10 days.

The court hearing may result in a voluntary settlement to receive up to a year of treatment. The judge can order treatment if the person does not agree to a settlement.

The criteria for being considered for court-ordered treatment include a deteriorating mental condition, past noncompliance with medication and history of hospitalization, incarceration or violence. Evaluations also consider the person’s chances of survival without supervision.

According to a handout at Thursday’s meeting, a county behavioral health director, hospital director, psychiatrist, police officer, family member or roommate can refer a person to a Laura’s Law program. Counties post a phone line for referring people to the program.

Law saved a life

Linda Mayo of Modesto began pushing for adoption of the law in Stanislaus County for people like her 43-year-old daughter. Her daughter, who suffers from bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, was able to live on her own and work as a hair stylist by staying with treatment, but her condition declined seven years ago. She lost her apartment, slept in parks and walked the streets talking to herself and screaming.

Mayo said she learned about Laura’s Law two years ago, when her daughter got on a bus to Southern California with $200 and was picked up by Santa Monica police. Following a series of hospitalizations, her daughter has received outpatient treatment at Harbor UCLA Medical Center through Laura’s Law in Los Angeles County. She lives in a group home.

Mayo said some families are desperate to get treatment for loved ones before their behavior results in someone getting hurt. “I believe Laura’s Law saved my daughter’s life,” she said.

California counties have different ways of using the law. San Francisco and Alameda may work with people on voluntary compliance for one or two months, while Nevada County doesn’t have an automatic voluntary outreach period.

Some groups are critical of Laura’s Law because of concerns about civil liberties and potential violation of patients’ rights. There’s also concern the focus on preventing violence casts aspersions on people with mental illness.

County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said Friday he was not aware the law was being considered for Stanislaus County.

“I would want to know what the safeguards are for people being forced into mental health treatment,” DeMartini said. “All sorts of demands are being placed on government. I would be looking at what the costs would be.”

Civil rights provisions were written into Laura’s Law, such as the right to legal counsel and ability to petition for release from the program every 60 days.

Counties can use Mental Health Services Act funds or local funding to support their programs.

DeGette said the funding source for a new program is always a consideration.

“We want to make sure we are clear on what Laura’s Law is able to do and not do,” he added.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321