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Laura’s Law ten years later: Progress slow, effects dramatic

Ten years ago today, a delusional Scott Thorpe went on a shooting rampage in Nevada City and Grass Valley that left Laura Wilcox, 19, Pearlie Mae Feldman, 68, and Michael Markle, 24, dead. Several other victims were wounded in the attacks.

The death of their daughter spurred Nick and Amanda Wilcox of Penn Valley to push for the passage of what became known as Laura’s Law – legislation designed to authorize court-ordered outpatient treatment for people with severe, untreated mental illness.

Then-Gov. Gray Davis signed the bill in 2002.

In the 10 years since Laura’s death, what has the law named in her honor accomplished?

Out of 58 counties in California, only Nevada County has fully implemented an assisted outpatient treatment program under Laura’s Law – and not until 2008. Los Angeles County has opted into a small pilot program.

“When the law was originally proposed, it had funding associated with it,” Nick Wilcox said.

“But two things happened, more or less simultaneously. First of all, the state budget tanked. And second, John Burton (then a powerful state senator from San Francisco) was not a supporter, and did everything in his power to try to derail it.”

So the bill passed, but without any funding, Amanda Wilcox said. That meant counties could only implement Laura’s Law if it didn’t supplant other funding.

What made implementation possible in Nevada County was the passage of Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act that provided increased funding, personnel and other resources to support county mental health programs.

“We sued Nevada County, and the primary dismissal condition was that if Prop 63. passed, Nevada County would implement Laura’s Law,” Nick said.

“We put our (lawsuit) settlement money into getting the proposition passed,” Amanda said. “We wanted to make a long-term difference.”

The Wilcoxes also had to put pressure on the state to allow those MHSA funds to be used for Laura’s Law, they said.

Nevada County implemented Laura’s Law in May 2008; Turning Point Providence Center, in Grass Valley, provides the assisted outpatient treatment services.

As of today, 23 individuals have been referred for evaluation through Laura’s Law, said program director Carol Stanchfield.

Once someone is referred, therapists immediately begin meeting with them and providing treatment, Stanchfield said. She stressed that Turning Point is a voluntary program – no one can be forced to take medication.

Referrals can only come from certain sources, Stanchfield explained – a relative, a cohabitant, an agency or hospital director, a treatment provider or a peace officer.

The person must meet a set of stringent criteria, including: They must be older than 18, have a history of being noncompliant with treatment, and must be a serious risk of harm to themselves or others.

What Nevada County has found, similar to what New York experienced with Kendra’s Law, is most clients referred to the program comply with treatment without the county taking the final step of a hearing to order it.

“Most people, when they are faced with a hearing, will comply with treatment,” Nick Wilcox said. “The law really rests on an interesting premise – that most people are law-abiding citizens and, when faced with a court order, will comply. (It) doesn’t have a lot of teeth, but it is effective.”

Only four of the 23 Nevada County referrals have gone to a hearing, Stanchfield said.

Of the other 19 clients, the majority have voluntarily cooperated with treatment, said Nevada County Behavioral Health Department Director Michael Heggarty.

The county did not pursue court orders on some of those clients for a variety of reasons, including the person had moved out of the county, was jailed or hospitalized, Heggarty said.

“For us, the biggest impact has been, not on the four (that went to a court order), but on the other 19 that were referred that didn’t need a court order,” Heggarty said. “None of those 23 people would have received any treatment without Laura’s Law.

“The people that we got orders for are very difficult to treat, and we’re not experiencing huge successes with those,” Heggarty added. “But with the others, we’re seeing less hospitalizations, less incarcerations, higher employment and more stable living situations, as well as compliance with treatment.”

“Just the intervention itself … begins the process of recovery,” Stanchfield said.

While several San Francisco Bay Area counties have considered implementing Laura’s Law, none have done so. San Francisco’s effort ran into a possibly permanent roadblock this fall.

Resistance to Laura’s Law is based on fear that individual rights would be compromised, said Turning Point’s Stanchfield.

“But in fact, that isn’t really the case,” she said. “Assisted outpatient treatment protects the civil rights of candidates, while addressing the safety concerns of the individuals, the families and the community.

“Once counties take a closer look at the particulars here and the nuances, they realize this really is a preventative intervention for clients who aren’t in a place in their illness where they can make the choices necessary,” Stanchfield added. “For this small number of candidates, they’re not going to seek out services when they don’t understand the severity of their illness.”

Heggarty acknowledges he was a skeptic, too, when Nevada County first implemented the program.

“As a human being, I really value personal freedom, so the idea of getting a court order for mental health treatment was a new concept for me to embrace,” Heggarty admitted.

He is now a firm believer in Laura’s Law.

“One of the ways I came around to being a supporter is that many of the folks that are offered Laura’s Law would end up in locked, long-term psychiatric care without it – or locked up in jail,” he said. “So I see Laura’s Law as a less restrictive, less coercive process than what most of those folks would end up with.”

Heggarty has spoken across the state in favor of Laura’s Law, and he discounts many arguments he hears against it.

“We can’t force people to take medication, but we can persuade them,” he said. “The argument that it would be ineffective just has not been our experience. Most people don’t want to be sick.

“I also don’t agree that we just need more voluntary programs,” he added. “Laura’s Law specifically targets people we have already tried to get into voluntary programs.”

The cost of Laura’s Law often is exaggerated, Heggarty said.

He estimates the program costs of $80,000 to Nevada County have been offset by savings estimated at $203,000, based on lower hospitalization costs and reduced jail time. Those figures reflect all 23 referrals, rather than just the four who went to court-order hearings, he said.

One big stumbling block for other counties accepting Laura’s Law is the restriction placed on slashing other mental health programs to fund the program.

“We started at the same time we received MHSA funds, so we were able to avoid (that) restriction,” he said. “If a county has already allocated funds, they are in a bind.”

The Wilcoxes remain optimistic that more counties will implement Laura’s Law.

“It’s a slow, slow process,” Nick said. “The next immediate step is getting the law reauthorized. It sunsets in 2013. I want it reauthorized for an indefinite term, but that may not be politically possible.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.

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