Skepticism turned to enthusiasm for the Board of Supervisors after they heard the implementation plan for Laura's Law in Stanislaus County, which was unanimously approved at the April 24 meeting following a year-long effort by local advocates of the court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment program.
Supervisors gave approval for a three-year pilot of the Laura's Law program - a California law that gives individual counties the power to decide whether or not to implement it - and became the 19th county in the state to do so.
To qualify for the Laura's Law program, a person must have a serious mental illness, plus a recent history of psychiatric hospitalizations, jailings or attempts of serious violent behavior. The law allows a relative, roommate, mental health provider or police or probation officer to petition the courts to compel outpatient treatment for the individual, through which they will receive housing, transportation and mental health care.
After a fact-finding process last year that included community forums and online surveys to gauge the interest for the law in Stanislaus County, the Board in August ordered the Behavioral Health and Recovery Services to develop a plan to implement the program through a three-year trial - despite a contested study which found the program in other counties to be ineffective.
"We are proud that our county continues to show leadership in addressing the needs of the severely mentally ill in our communities," said Linda Mayo, a member of the Stanislaus County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which was instrumental in bringing the program to the area. "It will bring hope to all of us affected by mental illness.
Both county officials and advocates of Laura's Law hope that the program will decrease incarceration rates, hospitalizations and the homeless population throughout the valley. Laura's Law is expected to begin providing treatment in the fall, and there will be annual reviews presented to the Board demonstrating the program's effectiveness in such areas.
"To find out what works best in our community, we needed to be skeptical," said Supervisor Vito Chiesa of Hughson. "With all that skepticism, talking and looking for the best programs, I think we've done really good work."
The county will create three new positions for the program, and the pilot program is expected to cost $1.4 million over the course of the three years accounting for the three new salaries, equipment, training, support services and space. These costs will not impact the county's General Fund, and will be supported by funding from the Mental Health Services Act and Medi-Cal.
"It's a three-year pilot and I have no doubt that at the end of this pilot, we're going to see success, and if we do a million dollars will be a drop in the bucket compared to the money we've saved, compared to the lives that we've transformed, the families that we've saved and the community benefits at large," Supervisor Kristin Olsen said.
The implementation plan for the three-year trial of Laura's Law first involves an evaluation of those referred to the program by County behavioral staff, who will persuade them to voluntarily receive help through outpatient services. If the patient refuses, they may be scheduled for a court hearing, where a judge has the option to order a treatment plan. A public defender will represent the patient in court.
Though a patient does not necessarily have to comply with court orders, the hope is that the authoritative process of the court and interactions with professional health services will encourage compliance.
While several of the Board members and NAMI members in the crowd were ecstatic about Tuesday's approval of the three-year pilot program, Chairman Jim DeMartini is still wary of Laura's Law, he said.
"I want to remind everyone that this is a pilot program and it better show results, otherwise it's going to have to go away," DeMartini said. "I'm willing to give it a try, although I have to say somebody up here has to be more skeptical than everyone else."