By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO
City News Service
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted today to adopt Laura's Law, which allows for court-ordered treatment of severely mentally ill individuals.
"This is a path to recovery," Supervisor Michael Antonovich said.
Individual counties have the authority to adopt the California law named for 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, a mental health worker fatally shot by a client outside a clinic in 2001.
Nevada County, where Wilcox lived, was the first to implement the law. San Francisco and Orange counties have more recently adopted Laura's Law.
Advocates for the mentally ill were split.
Brittney Weissman, executive director of the Los Angeles County Council of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told the board she supported adoption of Laura's Law, which she called "a bridge to recovery for mental illness."
Weissman cited results under Kendra's Law, a similar measure implemented in New York State, saying it resulted in 77 percent fewer psychiatric hospitalizations, 83 percent fewer arrests, 87 percent fewer incarcerations and a 74 reduction in homelessness for those treated.
"It disrupts the revolving door of repeated jailings, hospitalizations and homelessness," she said.
Catherine Bond of the Los Angeles County Client Coalition disagreed, saying the statistics applied to a small number of patients.
"This is a law that does not have the kind of statistics that people are claiming for it," Bond told the board. "The percentages sound impressive, but the numbers of people who are being treated are very small."
The statistics Weissman cited match those provided in a 2005 report on Kendra's Law that covered 3,908 patients treated over five years. The vast majority of those patients treated were diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The board's 4-0 vote allows the Department of Mental Health to implement an Assisted Outpatient Treatment program, conducting community outreach to identify chronic mentally ill individuals in need of treatment, and also approves funding for more slots in existing mental health treatment programs.
Dave Pilon, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Los Angeles, said he agreed with what Dr. Marvin Southard, director of the Department of Mental Health, has called "outreach on steroids," but objected to implementing Laura's Law.
"What we don't believe is that it is necessary to couple these services with a court order," Pilon said.
Civil rights advocates said the law, though well-intentioned, is discriminatory.
"It's very clear that it infringes on people's civil liberties," said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Eliasberg argued for increasing the quality and quantity of voluntary mental health services.
Others argued that the law criminalizes mental health.
"It plays into this fear that folks with mental health conditions are violent people," said Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now. Johnson said blacks were five times more likely and Latinos were two times more likely to be forced into treatment under court order, based on Kendra's Law.
Supervisor Gloria Molina said the county needed tools to help the chronic mentally ill, but stressed that cases would have to be carefully evaluated.
"We don't want to go back to the days when people were hospitalized at harm to themselves," Molina said, but added, "Many of the people who need these kinds of things don't necessarily volunteer."