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About Mental Health

OPINION How we bring Laura’s Law to all Californians

By Amy Yannello
Sunday, December 28, 2014

It’s high time for a bill that would expand Laura’s Law to all 58 California counties, and now Assembly member Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, has introduced one.

Our jails are overflowing with people who need treatment; our streets are teeming with mentally ill individuals who have fallen through the cracks because they don’t recognize their own illness. Victimization — of, and by, those with untreated severe and persistent mental illness — can no longer be ignored when we know assisted outpatient treatment, with its mandated medication monitoring and intensive wraparound services, works.

Waldron’s AB59 would make Laura’s Law — which allows court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment — permanent, as well as eliminating the need for a separate affirming vote from each county’s board of supervisors. That alone would be a game-changer, taking politics out of what is an evidence-based, medically grounded treatment program.

Alameda County resident Candy DeWitt, whose son suffers from schizophrenia and paranoid delusions, is among those who bemoan a system that comprises 100 percent voluntary outpatient treatment programs. “No matter how hard we tried, our family, like so many others, were unable to get help for our son because of his inability to understand he was ill,” she said. Daniel DeWitt, who had been off his medication and was experiencing a psychotic episode, is accused of bludgeoning to death Berkeley resident Peter Cukor in 2012.

AB59 also dovetails with the 13 recommendations in the Lanterman-Petris-Short Task Force’s 2012 report, an effort to review the state’s 50-year-old civil commitment/psychiatric treatment law. The recommendations haven’t generated much action beyond the passage of SB585, which clarified the state’s position that Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63) monies could be used to fund Laura’s Law programs. The panel emphasized the need to use Laura’s Law on a widespread basis to reduce the number of overall inpatient psychiatric admissions — and re-admissions.

While AB59 may be just what the doctor ordered, its passage won’t be easy, as opponents gear up to scream “unfunded state mandate,” as well as taking advantage of an inexperienced Legislature whose members weren’t around during the fights over passage of Laura’s Law in 2002.

But it’s time we afforded everyone the right to treatment. Laura’s Law saves money. Mental Illness Policy.Org, which advocates for assisted outpatient treatment, shows it would take $19 million to implement the law statewide, but the law would save counties “a minimum of $38 million” in reduced hospitalization and incarceration costs, for a net savings of at least $19 million in the first year alone.

As for the concerns over individual rights, there is no right to be floridly psychotic, or sleep on subway grates, or eat out of Dumpsters, or attempt to stab your mother because you hear a voice that tells you she’s Satan.
When asked if they’re glad decisions were made for them when they were unable to discern for themselves the need for treatment, those who have regained control over their lives say yes.

So far, only six other counties have joined Nevada County in implementing Laura’s Law, but psychiatrist Stephen Seager (author of “Behind the Gates of Gomorrah: A Year with the Criminally Insane”) thinks the law’s day is coming. He predicts that within two years, Laura’s Law and assisted outpatient treatment in general will be used nationwide. Comparing it to the battle over same-sex marriage, Seager said: “For years, it was ‘fight, fight, fight.’ But in the last two years, you’ve seen ban after ban struck down. Now, people are saying, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Laura’s Law will be like that.”

Amy Yannello is a journalist who writes frequently on mental health issues.

An unused tool without expansion statewide, Laura’s Law will be left unused. To get this bill to a floor vote, citizens must demand this legislation — starting now. Let legislators come back from recess to in-boxes stuffed with e-mail in support of AB59.

To find your legislator, plus the full text and analysis of AB59, go to: Contact Assembly member Marie Waldron at (916) 319-2075 or e-mail