WOODLAND — Yolo County became just the third county in California to fully implement Laura’s Law when supervisors voted Tuesday to turn what was a yearlong pilot project into a regular program.
Named after a Nevada County woman who was murdered by a man with a long history of mental illness, the law allows courts to order involuntary outpatient treatment for individuals with a serious mental illness, a recent history of hospitalization or violent behavior, as well as noncompliance with a voluntary treatment plan indicating a likelihood of becoming dangerous to themselves or others.
The state Legislature approved Laura’s Law in 2003, but up until this year, only Nevada County had fully implemented the law. That changed last month when the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to fully implement the measure and Yolo County followed suit on Tuesday.
The law has been in effect locally for the past year through a pilot project that opened up four slots for what the law refers to as assisted outpatient treatment. During that time, four Yolo County residents entered the program — two are currently receiving services, one is in the engagement period and the fourth became ineligible due to court proceedings.
The small sample size and relatively short duration of the pilot project has produced little in the way of empirical data to support fully implementing the program, but local officials urged supervisors to do so nonetheless, especially in the wake of a spate of tragedies— locally and across the country — in which the mental health of an individual involved has been an issue and family members have decried their inability to do anything about it.
That was reportedly the case for the parents of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six people near UC Santa Barbara last month, as well as the family of Aquelin Talamantes, the Davis woman who was recently convicted of drowning her 5-year-old daughter.
“Oftentimes,” said Yolo County Mental Health Director Karen Larsen, “families are just desperate for something, some kind of help to prevent some of these really horrible outcomes that we’ve seen not only locally but also across the state and the nation lately … people that are in need of help and didn’t get it.
“We don’t have a lot of people referred for treatment,” she acknowledged, “but the people we have had referred, we’ve had some pretty amazing outcomes.”
Under the law, seriously mentally ill individuals can be referred to the county mental health director by a parent, spouse, sibling or adult child; a roommate; a licensed mental health professional or treating doctor; or a peace officer.
After an investigation by her department, Larsen then chooses whether to file a petition with the court for assisted outpatient treatment.
In Nevada County, which has had a decade to collect data on Laura’s Law, few referrals even made it to court.
Rather, merely making contact with referred individuals often got them into treatment voluntarily, that county’s program director, Carol Stanchfield, told Yolo County supervisors last year.
If Nevada County’s experience holds true in Yolo County, an uptick in referrals also could be seen as the program continues, said John Buck, CEO of Turning Point, which operates the assisted outpatient programs in both Nevada and Yolo counties.
“We also had a very slow start-up in Nevada County,” Buck told supervisors on Tuesday. “People who could be making referrals aren’t used to it, they’re thinking, ‘Well I’ll let somebody else do it first and see how it works out.’ … There’s sort of a learning curve and the referrals will then likely pick up over the course of the next year.”
Larsen’s department has requested $80,654 in the 2014-15 budget to cover five assisted outpatient treatment slots — three for patients with Medi-Cal and two for patients without.
Bob Schelen, chair of the Yolo County Local Mental Health Board, expressed support Tuesday for making the program permanent.
Like Larsen, Schelen acknowledged a lack of empirical evidence to support turning the pilot project into a full-fledged county program, but he also noted that “you can’t prove a negative.”
“We can’t tell you how many incidents did not happen because of the program,” Schelen said. “But we believe if we can continue it on an ongoing basis, we will collect enough evidence to show this does work.”
Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis, while acknowledging his support for the program, wanted to maintain Laura’s Law as a pilot project in Yolo County until further data could be collected and he made a motion to that effect. But without a second, the motion died.
“Keeping it as a pilot project creates an uncertainty that isn’t necessary,” said Supervisor Don Saylor of Davis, who noted that funding for five assisted outpatient treatment slots is already included in the Mental Health Services Act three-year expenditure plan that was approved by the board earlier this year.
“This is now part of the MHSA plan,” he noted. “It’s budgeted.”
The board then voted 4-1, with Provenza dissenting, to fully implement Laura’s Law as a county program.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy