Bill had to balance safety against civil rights
Life had already turned upside down for Nick and Amanda Wilcox.
Their daughter, Laura, was among three people slain in the Jan. 10, 2001, shooting spree that also left three injured. Witnesses said the alleged gunman, afflicted with schizophrenia, had turned increasingly delusional and threatening weeks before mayhem struck Nevada County.
In making sense of it all, the Wilcoxes sought reason and purpose where many think neither exist. At the Capitol, bills often wallow in debate, side deals and amendments until they faintly resemble their original form.
But the Penn Valley couple immersed themselves in the process anyway. They dropped in on lawmakers and aides and spoke to legislative committees. They wrote letters and made phone calls.
Not long into the process, they were disillusioned with Sacramento.
“There is a lot of ugliness that goes on. There’s a lot of personal ego and face-saving maneuvering,” Nick Wilcox said. But, “in the end, I think this bill represented a really good compromise.”
The bill became Laura’s Law, which Gov. Gray Davis signed Saturday.
Backers say it strikes a balance between mandating outpatient mental health treatment for the dangerous few who refuse it and preserving their civil rights.
But the law offers no direct funding and opponents, particularly mental health clients, say the law stigmatizes the mentally ill and will create distrust.
“We’re not more violent than the general society, but that’s how it was promoted,” said Sally Zinman of the California Network of Mental Health Clients.
Laura Wilcox was 19 and a pacifist who spoke with concern of the clients who visited the Nevada County mental health clinic. Like her parents, she was a member of the Quakers, a politically active religious group and a lobbying force in Sacramento.
Home on holiday break, she was working at the clinic’s front desk on Jan. 10, 2001, when client Scott Thorpe allegedly burst into the lobby and began firing his handgun. Authorities say he next drove to Lyon’s Restaurant and fired again.
Wilcox, Pearlie Mae Feldman and Mike Markle died. Judith Edzards and Rick Senuty were wounded by gunfire, and Daisy Switzer was seriously hurt leaping from a second-floor window at the clinic.
By then, Assembly Bill 1421 was already many years in the making. The Wilcoxes met with its author, Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, and soon the bill was named after Laura.
“They’ve been instrumental in putting a face on the need for reform, and I have great admiration for them, because another family in another circumstance might have been vindictive,” said Carla Jacobs, a board director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill who lives in Orange County.
Reform efforts have decades-old roots.
In 1967, liberals and conservatives joined in passing the Lanterman Petris Short Act signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. It freed the mentally ill from state psychiatric hospitals and made voluntary mental health care the rule in most cases.
Indefinite hospital stays were replaced by the 72-hour hold, which can only be extended through a court process of checks and balances.
It was both a civil rights victory and an immediate cost saver, and the forces that got it passed were dubbed “the Unholy Alliance” because of what happened – or didn’t happen – next.
Many of those freed never got treatment again. Some became street people.
“The money never followed, and the amount of money that’s available is less and less each year,” Nick Wilcox said.
A lawmaker who voted for the LPs Act is Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, the state Senate president pro tempore. Among the most powerful politicians in the Capitol, he’s blocked past reform attempts, including earlier versions of Thomson’s bill.
The Wilcoxes knew when they began their lobbying that getting anything passed meant persuading Burton.
Nick Wilcox, who works in Sacramento, tried to schedule meetings with the senator. When that failed, he repeatedly stopped by Burton’s office until, one day, there the senator stood.
“His face turned gray, so he knows who we are,” Nick Wilcox said. “I see him all over Sacramento, and we kind of nod to each other.”
The two chatted briefly, and Burton assigned an aide to continue the conversation as he left for another engagement. Efforts to interview Burton for this story were unsuccessful.
Burton’s chief fiscal policy adviser, Diane Cummins, said the senator’s long-held stance is a matter of civil rights and limited money for the voluntary treatment programs he supports.
“From his perspective, the system only funds about half the people who need services, so to jump from that to involuntary services is inconsistent,” she said.
But something changed this year. While Burton voted against AB 1421, he did allow the bill to reach the Senate floor. It had already passed the Assembly 65-1 last year.
A key to that, said Thomson’s chief of staff, Craig Reynolds, was “John Burton finally becoming engaged in the discussion, as opposed to merely dismissing the idea.”
Burton even arranged a closed-door meeting to make it a workable law after it was gutted by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
“I wouldn’t call that a negotiation. It was a meeting,” said Cummins, who met with Thomson staffers and others.
Much of the bill’s intent was restored. The talks strengthened patients’ civil rights and modified the criteria for qualifying clients for treatment.
It advanced to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Amanda Wilcox spoke last month.
Quakers historically have advocated civil rights, including those of the mentally ill, she told the lawmakers.
“We believe that the civil rights of mental health clients should be respected and protected. However, we also believe Laura had a more fundamental right to life and we, as parents, had a right to see our daughter grow into adulthood and watch her fulfill her dreams.
“Surely there must be a balance between individual freedoms and public safety. We believe AB 1421 strikes such a balance.”
The judiciary committee passed the bill, as did the appropriations committee later.
That put it before the last major hurdle – the Senate floor. It passed 27-8, with Burton in the “nay” group.
While the law was named after Laura Wilcox, it’s just as much linked to Scott Thorpe and others accused of violent acts spurred by psychosis.
“The Thorpe case is an example of waiting for danger until it’s just too late,” NAMI’s Jacobs said.
But how predictable are violent outbursts?
Zinman, whose clients’ group joined an anti-AB 1421 rally a week before the governor signed the bill, drew a comparison to the movie “Minority Report,” where Tom Cruise’s character fights crimes before they occur.
“Even psychiatrists feel you could not project those things,” she said.
But in Thorpe’s case, the Wilcoxes have maintained his alleged actions were “predictable and preventable.”
Amanda Wilcox told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thorpe was stalking a clinic employee, kept an arsenal of weapons at his home, refused to take his medication, and was a source of concern among his family members.
He was deemed incompetent to stand trial and sent to state hospitals in Atascadero and Napa. His mental status will be addressed again this week in Nevada County Superior Court.
“We believe that he would have qualified for assisted outpatient treatment and that if a program similar to that contemplated by AB 1421 had been in place, Laura would be alive today,” she said.
But just how many counties participate remains to be seen, because none will get state money. The law lost its projected state funding of $50 million because of state budget woes.
Reynolds, Thomson’s chief of staff, hopes counties make cost comparisons.
“We think there will be considerable savings from reducing jail placements, hospitalizations, and the revolving door through the judicial system,” he said. “There’s going to be savings that offset those costs significantly.”
Laura’s Law provisions
— Allows counties to provide court-ordered outpatient treatment or assisted outpatient treatment for the seriously mentally ill.
— Court must find the patient is likely to become dangerous or gravely disabled without the ordered treatment.
— Court can order treatment for up to six months.
— Patient must have a history of not complying with treatment.
— Patient’s parents, spouse, sibling, adult child or roommate can request a petition for outpatient treatment, as can mental health workers and police.
— Provides no funding, and the program is optional for counties.
— Expires in 2008 unless lawmakers extend it.
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