Jeff Jardine

Laura’s Law proponents in Stanislaus County look to once-starving sign man downtown and wonder, ‘What if?’

Stanislaus sheriff’s deputies speak to Ramon Alvarez in 2008, while he was parked across from The Modesto Bee, about the handmade signs covering his vehicle. The signs claimed an unnamed judge had raped his daughter and that a detective had given his son drugs – neither of which, a family member said, ever happened.
Stanislaus sheriff’s deputies speak to Ramon Alvarez in 2008, while he was parked across from The Modesto Bee, about the handmade signs covering his vehicle. The signs claimed an unnamed judge had raped his daughter and that a detective had given his son drugs – neither of which, a family member said, ever happened. Modesto Bee file

Pretty much anyone frequenting downtown Modesto over the past decade probably remembers Ramon Alvarez.

Maybe they didn’t know him by name, but his dark-green minivan cluttered with undecipherable, handmade signs certainly drew its share of double takes. He began parking the van in front of the Stanislaus County Courthouse in 2006, his wordage claiming an unnamed judge had raped his daughter and that a detective gave his son drugs – neither of which, a family member told me, ever happened. They could do nothing to help him and for many years were estranged.

Authorities mostly dealt with him by obtaining restraining orders to move him from place to place downtown, each time a bit farther from the courthouse.

His mental state deteriorated to the point at which, in 2012, he went on a hunger strike and began starving himself at Ninth and G streets, just a block west of the Modesto Police Department. He lost 40 pounds, drinking only bottled water in the summer heat. A woman who worked in a law office across the street told me she looked over one day and saw him motionless on the sidewalk.

“I was going to shake him,” she told me at the time. “I thought he was dead.”

Alvarez wasn’t, but at the rate he was going, he likely would have been soon. Finally, police and health department officials loaded him into an ambulance and took him to a local hospital.

Why didn’t they intervene before then? The answer is simple: Legally, they couldn’t until Alvarez proved himself a threat to his own safety, the public’s or was gravely disabled. Until then, he was none of the three, even though he’d once scared the heck out of a Superior Court judge and other court personnel by swerving his van at them one day as they crossed the street near the courthouse. Another time, he tried to hand out cans of Coke to anyone who would stop at 14th and H streets, causing some people to pull over suddenly. That, of course, posed a hazard.

The same can apply to so many others in the area, including many homeless. They meet the minimum standards for functionality and therefore are left alone. The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967 prohibits the involuntary and indefinite commitment of people with mental health issues, developmental disabilities and chronic alcoholism. As result, those picked up on 5150 (mental disorderly) can be held for no longer than 72 hours, scaling by severity up to 5,300 holds of 180 days for those considered to be imminently dangerous.

Next question: What if Stanislaus County had implemented Laura’s Law, which allows counties to seek court-ordered patient help for those with serious mental disorders? State legislators passed it in 2003, leaving each of the 58 counties to determine whether to create and pay for the programs aimed at people such as Alvarez, who had failed to comply with mental health treatment attempts.

Stanislaus County is committed to its Focus on Prevention, a 10-year program that employs intense community outreach and support, according to Richard DeGette, the county’s director of Behavioral Health and Recovery Service. But county officials also are researching how Laura’s Law – also known as the Assisted Outpatient Treatment program – is working in the counties that have embraced it. The county will host community meetings March 28-29 at Harvest Hall on Cornucopia Way in south Modesto.

Local mental health advocates believe Laura’s Law would help people now, getting them into treatment faster and ending the cycle of being arrested, taken to the behavioral center and then being released without getting real help.

“Laura’s Law adds the step before a conservatorship,” said Rhonda Allen, who heads the Stanislaus Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit organization that advocates and creates awareness for people with mental illnesses.

She and others at NAMI want Stanislaus County officials to create such a program, which would enable law enforcement, mental health officials or family members to bring an individual with serious mental illness before a judge, where the individual would have the opportunity to voluntarily accept an outpatient treatment program, working with caseworkers. If the individual then quits the program, the court can order more structured treatment. Going before a judge makes a bigger impact, Allen said.

“The ‘black-robe effect,’ ” she said.

Allen believes Laura’s Law would have helped Alvarez get treatment sooner and perhaps live longer. So does Lonny Davis, owner of Davis Group Homes, where Alvarez spent the last four years of his life after being hospitalized. He died Oct. 5, his life no doubt shortened by his mental condition and decade of homelessness.

“He had been on the streets a long, long time,” Davis said. “He was psychotic. Conservative estimates are that about half of homeless people are mentally ill. Half or more of those are schizophrenic or bipolar. They don’t believe anything is wrong with them. It’s everybody else, and the part of the brain that distinguishes it isn’t working.”

While in the group home, Alvarez took his medications and became more functional over time.

“He became a model client,” Davis said. “He was the sweetest man. He retained all of the delusions, but the meds dialed them down.”

And the most gratifying part for Davis?

“(Alvarez) reconciled with his family while he was here.”

Learn more

The Stanislaus Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness will feature LeeAnn Jefferies, author of “The Bipolar Experience,” at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at College Avenue Congregational Church. Contact NAMI Stanislaus at 209-558-4555 or email Mhenry2@csustan.edu for more information.

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