Mental health forum debates Laura’s Law

County residents discuss mandatory treatment for seriously disturbed
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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About 30 people assembled in the Placer County Library in Auburn on Thursday to debate legalizing court-ordered treatment for people with serious mental illnesses.

Kicking off a forum hosted by the Auburn Area Democratic Club, Placer County health directors Richard Knecht and Maureen Bauman started by summarizing the county’s programs and strategies before moving on to the subject of Laura’s Law.

Named for the daughter of Nevada County residents Nick and Amanda Wilcox, who was gunned down by a psychotic patient in 2001, the law was modeled after similar laws in 44 other states and was implemented in Nevada County in 2008. If approved by a county’s board of supervisors, the law allows involuntary, court-imposed outpatient treatment for a mentally ill person whose noncompliance with treatment has resulted in psychiatric hospitalization or incarceration more than once in the past three years, plus one or more violent attempts toward himself or others in the past four years.

Presenting the law as a new tool worth investigating, Bauman said it can get someone to the hospital but cannot sidestep the proper channels for actual medications or treatment.

“There is a tool involved in this that doesn’t exist in Placer County, and the tool is that, if somebody is not compliant and they are not doing well, but they don’t meet criteria for 5150, which is danger to self or others … a judge can order that that person actually be taken to the hospital,” she said. “Once they get to the hospital, all the regular laws exist … If nothing changes after the 72 hour limit and they still don’t meet criteria, they just go back out.”

Bauman said the Mental Health Alcohol and Drug Advisory Board had made a recommendation not to adopt the law last year, but wanted to continue collecting data to see if the law is necessary.

Amanda Wilcox, who helped author the law and attended on Thursday, said Nevada County has recorded 61 referrals and 23 court orders since May 2008.

“It’s just initiating the process – a family member, a roommate, law enforcement, a health care provider – for a court order to comply with treatment because this person is deteriorating, is a risk and has this history that makes them qualify,” she said. “What we have found in Nevada County is that just initiating the process gets some people connected.”

Amanda’s husband, Nick, said the law only deals with “a very narrow end of the spectrum,” and implementation would be easy because Placer County already has many of the necessary services in place. He argued its provisions are necessary, even though they deal with a very small minority of people, because too many people across the country have already fallen victim to unchecked mental health issues.

“People with mental illness certainly have civil liberties that must be respected, but Laura had civil liberties as well,” he said. “She had a right to live, in our opinion, and because a single person was able to exercise his right to refuse medication, she no longer has her civil rights. That’s kind of the way we look at it.”