Back in June, when the Yolo County Board of Supervisors approved a pilot project implementing “Laura’s Law,” Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis noted the “awesome authority” inherent when a court can order involuntary treatment for individuals with serious mental illness.
“We have to tread very carefully,” Provenza said at the time.
Indeed, even though Laura’s Law had been on the books for a decade, only one county in California — Nevada County — had fully implemented the measure.
Approved by the state Legislature in 2003, Laura’s Law was named after a Nevada County woman who was murdered during a killing spree by a man with a long history of mental illness who had resisted treatment.
The law allows courts to order involuntary outpatient treatment — also known as assisted outpatient treatment — for individuals with a serious mental illness, a recent history of hospitalization or violent behavior, as well as non-compliance with a voluntary treatment plan indicating a likelihood of becoming dangerous to themselves or others.
The law was authored by then-Assemblywoman Helen Thomson of Davis, who was among those urging Yolo County supervisors last year to implement the law locally.
Supervisors unanimously did so in June, creating a one-year pilot project with four available slots for assisted outpatient treatment.
But in approving the project, Provenza requested that the county mental health department return to the board with updates.
“We have to make sure we do this correctly,” he said in June.
The county’s acting mental health director, Mark Bryant, provided just such an update on Tuesday.
Bryant said the first day the pilot project rolled out, his department received its first referral.
He briefly worried the floodgates had been opened.
“But it’s been slower since then,” Bryant said.
Still, three of the four available slots are filled and Bryant made a fifth spot available if need be.
The law spells out exactly who can refer individuals for involuntary outpatient treatment, namely: the person’s spouse, parent, sibling, adult child or roommate; or a treating doctor or peace officer. Referrals are made to the county mental health director — currently Bryant — who then investigates and chooses whether to file a petition with the court for assisted outpatient treatment.
In Nevada County, referrals rarely even made it to court.
Nevada County’s program director, Carol Stanchfield, told Yolo County supervisors last year that merely making contact with referred individuals often got them into treatment voluntarily.
Bryant told supervisors on Tuesday that that has been the case locally. Two of the three individuals are participating in treatment voluntarily and the third person, referred just a few weeks ago, is still in the initial engagement process.
“At this point there has not been a need to seek judicial intervention,” Bryant said. “That may become necessary, but at this point the goal is to engage patients and have them accept voluntary treatment.”
Two other individuals also were referred under the law, Bryant said, but neither were deemed eligible for involuntary outpatient treatment.
Bryant’s first-hand knowledge of each of the cases pleased Supervisor Matt Rexroad of Woodland, who said, “The fact that you know individual attributes of each of these people tells me we’re doing this the right way … (with) individual determinations for each of these people and not just (sliding) them into categories.”
Whether Yolo County eventually will need more than the five slots available is unclear, Bryant said, but he will return to the board for additional funding if needed.
And funding is less of an issue under Laura’s Law than it has been in the past. Under legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, assisted outpatient treatment now can be paid for through the state’s Mental Health Services Act.
However, Nevada County’s experience indicated assisted outpatient treatment can be cheaper than the alternative anyway.
According to the Nevada County Grand Jury, 17 individuals entered that county’s assisted outpatient treatment program for an extended period of time between April 2008 and December 2010. The total cost to the county for their treatment during that time was $482,443.
But in the one year preceding their entry into treatment, those 17 individuals had incurred a combined $425,100 in hospitalizations and incarcerations, the grand jury said. Had they not spent that time in assisted outpatient treatment, the projected cost of hospitalizations and incarcerations over that 2 1/2-year period would have topped $1 million, the grand jury reported.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy