The hope of Laura’s law
Roughly 500 miles from here, a law named after a slain Nevada County woman is expected to be implemented soon.
Los Angles County, home to 200,000 mentally ill clients, will spend a sliver of its $900 million mental health budget to carry out Laura’s Law.
Named after Laura Wilcox, one of three Nevada County people fatally shot two years ago today, the law is aimed at the mentally ill who miss appointments, ignore taking medication and pose a danger to the public. It would provide intensive involuntary outpatient treatment, rather than hospitalization.
“Our hope would be to target this for people who have a significant potential to be involved in a jail or correctional system,” said Roderick Shaner, medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
In Wilcox’s home county, however, plans are different.
The Nevada County Department of Behavioral Health has about 1,300 clients and works with an $8 million budget.
Some of the money is earmarked for drug and alcohol programs. What’s left isn’t enough to implement a law that’s both optional and fiscally impossible because the it’s funding was stripped during the legislative process, claimed Behavioral Health Director Robert Erickson.
That a law named after a local woman can’t be used locally isn’t lost on Sue Horne, the county Board of Supervisors chairwoman. She said the county would need to muster $250,000 a year, excluding court costs.
The law, she said, “was written so that it would not even help (Nevada County). We’re not to be at fault for that. That is how the state set it up.”
But others, notably Wilcox’s parents, Nick and Amanda, don’t totally agree the bill is impossible to implement. They lobbied and wrote letters supporting the bill and now realize money is tight.
“However,” Nick Wilcox said, “we believe that when it comes to spending money, it’s really a matter or priority in how you spend your money.”
The money can go toward preventative care, he said, “or you can spend it after the fact, through court costs and other things.”
Court costs are mounting in the case of Scott Thorpe, the former Behavioral Health client accused of gunning down Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old college student and temporary clinic worker, on Jan. 10, 2001.
Pearlie Mae Feldman, who brought a family to a clinic appointment, also died from gunshot wounds, while clinic workers Judith Edzards and Daisy Switzer were seriously injured – Edzards by gunfire, Switzer by jumping from a second-floor window to safety.
Minutes later, at Lyon’s Restaurant, assistant manager Mike Markle was fatally shot and cook Rick Senuty was wounded.
Thorpe, deemed schizophrenic, has been to mental hospitals and undergone numerous evaluations since then. Recently ruled competent, he faces a March murder trial.
Assembly Bill 1421 was already in the works at that time.
Before its passage, the law was stripped of its $50 million budget and limited in how it could be funded. The cost comes from intensive therapy that uses a model of 10 patients for every therapist. Nevada County has roughly 100 patients for every therapist,according to Erickson.
Another law provision prohibits counties from using existing outpatient funds.
The changes have hamstrung the law’s author, former Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, now a Yolo County board supervisor. In her county, Laura’s Law might not be implemented because of fiscal concerns.
“It doesn’t eliminate the fact that the need is still there,” she said. “People will have to be creative. They can’t avoid it. The families will be advocating.”
Yolo County applied for grants that might be put toward a mental health court and other programs. Her current hope is that Los Angeles County’s program proves a success.
A mental health court is among the programs Nevada County is pursuing, Erickson said. He also claimed his department has become more resourceful at tracking volatile clients and getting them therapy.
“It would be pretty hard for somebody to be too far out of control and not have a lot of people be aware of it,” he said.
In the process, Erickson said his department reduced inpatient hospitalization costs from $400,000 in 2000-01 to just over $200,000 in 2001-02. He also said there is limited grant money to implement Laura’s Law.
Realizing the budget woes, Nick Wilcox still believes the county can’t give up.
“I think what the county is saying is that they understand prevention is a good thing, but they’re unwilling to take the risk,” he said. “It’s a question of risk, and by not doing it … they are fundamentally gambling with people’s lives.”
County Crisis Unit
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