California Forum

Laura’s Law can save lives of people with mental illnesses

After a homeless and schizophrenic young man named Kelly Thomas was killed in an encounter with the Fullerton Police Department in 2011, parents of mentally ill children made pleas to me and other members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

If Laura’s Law had been in place in Orange County, perhaps Kelly Thomas would be alive today, they said. It prompted me to ask: What is Laura’s Law?

I followed up with research, lots of it. I was a business major, not a science or medical wonk. But being a county supervisor requires that you be knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects.

Initially, I was skeptical. When you’re not familiar with mental illness, you truly have no concept of what really is involved.

Throughout the process, I was surprised at the number of individuals who told me stories about close relatives who had mental illness. This is not a topic that is often broached; we usually don’t discuss these family secrets.

My wife recalled her childhood memories of one of her many aunts, and now certain things dawn on her.

A county manager confides that her father was schizophrenic and committed suicide early in life.

A member of the media shares the story of his institutionalized brother.

A Sacramento lobbyist informs me about his son.

There had been someone in my life who I had been observing for some time. My reading helped me to understand their actions. And my observations were confirmed in my reading. First-hand experience was driving the lesson home.

In the course of my research, I became a convert. It became apparent that loving but struggling parents needed tools to help with their adult children’s lives. Laura’s Law was one of those tools.

Laura’s Law might help change matters under the appropriate circumstances. Assembly Bill 1421, Laura’s Law, by then-Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, was signed into law in 2002. But for the next 10 years, it languished.

Only Nevada County, where the law’s namesake, Laura Wilcox, was murdered by a mentally ill man, had adopted this provision to utilize court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment.

With the assistance of a judge, also known as the black-robe effect, the individual in need may realize that someone is reaching out to provide a solution.

Laura’s Law is applicable to a narrow group of individuals, particularly people with a history of psychiatric hospitalizations, jail sentences, threats or attempts of serious violent behavior toward themselves or others.

It’s a tool for people who care for mentally ill loved ones, should it be necessary, where they can turn to authorities for help. A proper plan of treatment will be advised to help that individual.

When I asked my colleagues around the state what their counties were doing about Laura’s Law, the response I heard most frequently was, what is Laura’s Law?

I requested that Orange County’s Commission to End Homelessness make a determination and recommendation to the Board of Supervisors on whether to implement this legislation. The conclusion: If the county can find the funding, then it should consider this strategy.

The recession plus Sacramento’s decision to abscond with vehicle license fees and property tax revenue left Orange County’s budget with a devastating $74 million hole. Consequently, the county could not afford any new initiatives.

The county did use revenue from Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, to treat some mentally ill people. But Proposition 63 was not available for voluntary treatment.

In 2012, I met in Sacramento with legislators who were looking at a bill to extend Laura’s Law for another five years. But if counties couldn’t afford to adopt it, what good would an extension be?

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the main proponent of Proposition 63, took to heart Orange County’s request and authored legislation that would allow Mental Health Services Act money to cover the costs of implementing Laura’s Law.

Once Steinberg’s bill was signed into law, I requested that the Orange County Health Care Agency do three things: Draft the resolution to adopt Laura’s Law, prepare the fiscal 2014-15 budget to pay the law, and design a program to implement it.

On May 13, with a unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors, Orange County became the first urban California county to fully adopt Laura’s Law. In June, the budget was approved. This fall, the program should be ready for its first candidate.

In my research, I also found many professionals who strongly oppose Laura’s Law. But Orange County, with its expansion of mental health housing and services, will have another tool available for those dealing with mentally ill family members.

I’m hoping that we can prove to the critics that Laura’s Law, applied in a compassionate and professional manner, will be a godsend to those suffering from mental illness and for parents who, until now, were unable to assist them.