Community members, local health physicians, police officers and family members of those who have been affected by mental illness were in attendance last week at local informational meetings on Laura's Law, the legislation which allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment of people with serious mental disorders and learning about the steps that are being taken to implement it here in Stanislaus County.
"People really want to give this a shot and see if there's something we can do about the homeless," said Rhonda Allen, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and advocate for Laura's Law in Stanislaus County.
Laura's Law plays an essential role in getting those on the streets who may suffer from mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, the help they need to become self-sufficient once again, Allen explained.
The law was adopted by California in 2002, but individual counties have the power to decide whether or not to implement the law. Stanislaus County would become the 18th to do so in the state.
To qualify for the program, the person in question must have a serious mental illness plus a recent history of psychiatric hospitalizations, arrests 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.
The community meetings are a part of the fact-finding process put together by Stanislaus County officials to determine if the law would benefit the area, and a consultant from The Results Group, a firm hired by the county to conduct the research, was on hand at the meetings to collect community input.
Many at the meeting expressed dissatisfaction with the current mental health care system, including Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll, who said law enforcement is frustrated with the futility of spending hours trying to help intervene with the mentally ill just to see them back on the street the next day.
Noticeably absent from both of the meetings were members of the Board of Supervisors, who will make the final call when it comes to implementing the law throughout the county. Upon completing the fact-finding process, the consultants will present the results to the Board of Supervisors which could be used to formulate a policy. The fact-finding process, which includes research of other counties like Kern and Yolo where the law is implemented, is expected to be completed by the end of May.
"It is a concern that there were no supervisors in attendance," said Allen. "I guess they're waiting on the sidelines for whatever the report says."
The Results Group shared that of nearly 3,000 people in Stanislaus County who have met the criteria for Laura's Law, 550 have accessed mental health services while 1,800 have had limited or no access to services.
"That's a lot of people, but it's still not narrowed down to who exactly qualify," said Allen.
Sheriff Adam Christianson is a supporter of Laura's Law being implemented in Stanislaus County, but worries where the funding for the program will come from and where those affected by the law will go.
"One of the things the board is going to have to look at is where do they go and who is paying for them?" said Christianson. "We deal with a lot of mentally ill offenders, and I'm here to tell you that there's an insufficient amount of funding, resources, facilities and personnel to deal with mental illness in this community."
Allen believes that concerns about funding and space are misguided, and added that Laura's Law does not say that a patient has to be guaranteed a bed.
"I think we can find a place for a lot of these people," said Allen. "When there's a will, there's a way, and if the county has the funds available they can make it happen."
Between the years of 2015 and 2016, the sheriff's department responded to 1,678 mental health calls for service. Christianson views Laura's Law as another tool the county can use in its favor when dealing with those who suffer from mental health issues, although the sheriff's department is already making strides to ensure those who need help receive access to mental health services.
"We're really trying to divert people away from incarceration who are mentally ill," said Christianson. "But, that can't always be the case, so we provide services on both sides: in custody and out of custody."
Christianson stated that when the sheriff's department comes into contact with lower level offenders who suffer from mental illness, they are diverted to treatment rather than booked into the department's correctional facilities.
"We would rather connect people with mental health care facilities in the community," said Christianson.
When coming into contact with the mentally ill on the street, law enforcement is able to call for community paramedics, who are specifically trained in mental health care under an American Medical Response program. The community paramedics are able to transport the patient, freeing up law enforcement resources and providing the patient with trained, immediate care.
As for the care of mentally ill offenders who are in custody, the Sheriff's Department recently celebrated the completion of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Detention Center, the first project to utilize funds born out of the prison realignment effort known as AB 109. The new detention center in west Ceres boasts 171,000 square feet in new facilities, which includes 480 maximum security beds as well as housing for 57 medical and mental health offenders and 15 hospital beds. There is an emphasis on medical and mental health care throughout the facility.
Christianson hopes the new center will aid the county's efforts to provide proper treatment for the mentally ill. Upon arrival at the detention center, offenders will undergo extensive mental health care exams, and depending on their diagnosis and background can be immediately transferred to either a hospital of the facility's medical and mental health care unit.
The department's deputy sheriffs are specifically trained and assigned to work with mentally ill offenders, and through a community corrections partnership, more funds are being allocated to mental health care services to provide psychiatrists, mental health clinicians and psychiatric nurses.
"There are all kinds of folks here who provide services for those in custody," said Christianson.
The sheriff has met with the Department of State Hospitals, hoping to develop a jail-based treatment program where instead of waiting for a bed at a state hospital, inmates who are unfit to stand trial can begin treatment programs locally.
Despite his concerns with Laura's Law, Christianson sees it as something that could potentially aid the Stanislaus County.
"I'm supportive because I don't want these folks in my custody," he said. "Jail is not an appropriate setting for all cases. If that's another tool that's available to behavioral services and the community, then I'm all for it. But, again, who's paying for it and where are those facilities?"
The Results Group has not specified any information regarding the costs of implementing Laura's Law yet, but are looking at other counties throughout the state to see how they have paid for the services.
"You're not going to arrest your way out of mental illness, so we simply have to do a better job of figuring out how to provide what people need in order to break the cycles of addiction," said Christianson.
The Laura's Law fact-finding process will continue at another community meeting at 5:30 p.m. on April 20 at 800 Scenic Avenue in Modesto in the Redwood Room.