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Could Laura's Law be coming to Placer County?

Nearly 10 years after law is passed, most counties still haven?t implemented it
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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When their 19-year-old daughter Laura was murdered by a mentally ill patient in 2001, Nick and Amanda Wilcox said they realized for the first time how broken the mental health system was. During his rampage, Scott Harlan Thorpe went on to kill a woman picking up her son?s prescription, seriously injure Laura?s supervisor and kill the manager of the Lyon?s Restaurant in Grass Valley. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Napa State Hospital for life. The Wilcox?s agree the sentence was fair, but the crime was preventable. Thorpe?s family had tried for years to get him to stick with treatment and a county psychiatrist had noted he was potentially a danger to himself or others. He believed the people he killed were all part of an FBI plot to harm him, Nick Wilcox added. Thorpe had stopped taking his medication for late-onset paranoid schizophrenia. Amanda Wilcox said Laura was working as a temporary receptionist for the day at the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department while on Christmas break from Haverford College in Pennsylvania. She was majoring in history and political science and in the middle of her campaign for student body president. ?We started to realize that a big component of what led to the shooting rampage was untreated mental illness and frankly mental illness had never been on my radar screen,? Amanda Wilcox said. ?I had no experience with it.? They helped champion Laura?s Law, Assembly Bill 1569, which was implemented in 2003. It allows for court-ordered outpatient commitment of certain mental health clients who refuse voluntary treatment. A team of behavioral health professionals are then assigned to work with the patient while they continue to live at home. But nearly 10 years later, Nevada County is the only county that has implemented it. Los Angeles County partially implemented it. Local to present Laura?s Law to Placer County mental health officials Dr. Frank Lozano, of Auburn, an advocate with Placer County National Alliance on Mental Illness and a member of the Advisory Board of California National Alliance on Mental Illness Advocates, will present information to the Placer County Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Board at its meeting Monday. Advocates of the law, like Lozano, say it is necessary to save lives and can potentially save taxpayers money, while those opposed to it say court-ordered treatment of any kind infringes on people?s civil liberties and is not effective. To be implemented in Placer County, the involuntary assisted out patient treatment program would ultimately need to be approved by the Placer County Board of Supervisors. The Wilcox?s say counties could apply for funding through Proposition 63, like Nevada County has done. But they admit the start-up costs are a deterrent for many counties to begin implementing Laura?s Law and there is controversy over what Proposition 63 funds can be used for. In a video called ?The Nevada County Experience,? Behavioral Health Director Michael Haggerty shares that implementing Laura?s Law resulted in a reduction in actual hospital costs of $213,300 and a reduction in actual incarceration costs of $75,600. That?s because many of the patients who meet the very strict criteria outlined by the law either ended up in the hospital or incarcerated. Patients can?t be ordered to take medicine, although most that begin to undergo treatment agree to take their prescribed medication, according to the Wilcox?s. The Wilcox?s say Laura?s Law actually wouldn?t have prevented their daughter?s death because Thorpe didn?t meet the criteria of being previously hospitalized or sent to jail. Regardless, they say it is important to ensure the most dangerous patients get treatment. ?Once we learned that someone else?s mental health problems became our family?s problem and our community?s problem, therefore we all need to care,? Amanda Wilcox said. Lozano said many of the patients who would be treated through Laura?s Law have Anosognosia, a condition that causes them to not know or fail to recognize they are ill. Lozano said he would like to see hospitalizations and suicides be reduced in the county through Laura?s Law. ?Some of these people are so much in trouble that they need someone to be there for them,? Lozano said. ?I?d like to see lower incidents of 51-50. I?d like to see fewer suicides. You have to have a team of people who are on your side, who are going to be there to walk you through each of these phases until you know how to do it. You can change your habits within 21 days worth of practice, but you can?t change your psychotic disorder.? Lozano said that would also lower the cost of hospitalizing patients under 51-50 and decrease their interactions with law enforcement. Other groups says law imposes on civil liberties The American Civil Liberties Union signed a letter opposing Laura?s Law in 2002, according to Alan Schlosser, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. ?From our perspective the whole question of involuntary commitment is a serious one and that you are looking at fundamental liberty interests,? Schlosser said. ?You are looking at kind of a vulnerable population who even has difficulty asserting rights or their side of the story.? Schlosser added that the organization was concerned the law would lead to the involuntary treatment of people who were outside of the scope of the narrowly defined criteria, a trend the organization asserted occurred in New York when a similar bill, Kendra?s Law, was enacted. ?We felt that there just needed to be so much more attention to voluntary treatment, not something that has not proven to be effective and the real solution is not involuntary commitment,? Schlosser said. On its website, the California Network of Mental Health Clinics states that its membership ?identified stopping the expansion of forced treatment, including involuntary outpatient commitment, as a public policy imperative.? The organization agrees with the union that choice is essential to recovery and coercive treatment is ultimately ineffective. The Wilcox?s and Dr. Lozano say if patients don?t accept they have an illness, they could continue to spend the rest of their lives that way and end up hurting themselves or another person. ?If a person is out of control and cannot manage their life, somebody has to help,? Lozano said. ?You can?t let people walk up and down the streets shooting.? Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News.