Laura's Law

A place for support, intelligence, resources and support

March 5, 1981 -January 10, 2001

Laura Wilcox was shot and killed by a man at a mental-health clinic in Nevada County CA., January of 2001. So were 3 other people. The shooter had been diagnosed with severe agoraphobia and paranoia, had many times refused treatment and had no history of violence.

Scott Harlan Thorpe

Thorpe's neighbors say they knew him to be reclusive. Neighbors said Thorpe feared being in public so much that he stopped even grocery shopping a year before the violence. But Thorpe was not a violent person and cared for sick animals at his rural home. People said Thorpe must have “snapped”.

The system failed, and people died, lives were ruined; we hear sad stories like this one far too often. There is a plan that will drastically reduce the number of people who seem to “snap”. It’s known in California as Laura’s Law.

Signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, the law, Assembly Bill 1421, allows judges to order assisted outpatient treatment for the seriously mentally ill who don't understand the gravity of their condition.

Many people who are diagnosed with severe mental disorders suffer with a condition called anosognosia [an-o″so-no´zhah]. A form of self-preservation, it’s a “blind spot” in the brain of those who are seriously mentally compromised but do not know it. Serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, can be as perilous a neuropsychiatric disorder as Alzheimer’s disease or stroke. Currently in the United States our mental health care delivery systems ignore this and the associated anosognosia with tragic consequences. We know from case studies anosognosia appears to be a powerful predictor of tragic outcomes both from those who refuse treatment and the communities where they live. We would not expect a person suffering from Alzheimer's disease to figure out for themselves how to stay safe. A gravely ill person is vulnerable and has the right to safety even if that means keeping them safe from themselves.

Laura’s Law is about assisted outpatient treatment. Continuous and intensive court-ordered treatment for those most at risk from symptoms of severe mental illness.The treatment mechanism is only used until a person is well enough to follow his or her own treatment regimen unassisted. It can be a path to recovery for those released from inpatient facilities as well as an alternative to hospitalization. Assisted outpatient treatment can stop the cycle of repeated hospitalizations, time in jail, and homelessness.

Assisted outpatient treatment programs like Laura’s Law attempt to strike a balance between a patient’s rights and public safety; these programs provide patients with a support system so they might continue to live within the community, and provide caregivers with a legal means to push patients to accept treatment when those patients don’t believe they are ill in the first place.

In Nevada County CA., the impact of Laura’s Law has been dramatic, in 2015

●     Hospitalization was reduced 46%;

●     Incarceration reduced 65%;

●     Homelessness reduced 61%;

●     Emergency contacts reduced 44%;

●     For every $1 spent $1.81-$2.52 was saved as result of reducing incarceration, arrest, and hospitalization.

Only 12 counties in California have implemented the law so far:

Nevada, Yolo, Placer, Mendocino, San Francisco, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Kern, Orange, LA, San Diego, El Dorado. *

Court ordered treatment does not sit well with many people because, in part, of the dark history of forced psychiatric treatment and the days of prison-like mental institutions. Many believe Laura’s Law is a violation of civil rights. However, under the law a person retains all his/her legal due process rights. There is no provisions for involuntary medications. A very rare court hearing will still be required for involuntary medication. The number of individuals who would be treated under Laura’s Law is very small. In Nevada County the number is less than .003%. These are individuals caught in the downward cycle of incarceration, inpatient hospitalization and homelessness yet, unable to recognize they are ill.

In May of this year the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to implement Laura’s Law tentatively. The supervisors decided to pursue a three-year pilot program, estimated to cost $606,000 per year for 10 years with safe and supportive housing as needed. Learn more about this legislation and what you think about it. Share your thoughts.

Would love to hear your comments,

* Mental Illness Policy Organization