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Laura’s Law program up & running
• Pilot program seeks treatment for the seriously mentally ill

Since its implementation just under three months ago, Stanislaus County residents have taken advantage of the new Assisted Outpatient Treatment program known as Laura’s Law. 

On April 24 of last year, the Board of Supervisors voted to make Stanislaus the 19th county in the state to implement Laura’s Law by approving a three-year AOT pilot program. The vote came after a year-long fact-finding process to gauge the area’s need for such a program, which included community forums and online surveys. 

To qualify for AOT, the person in question 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.

Since the three-year pilot program was implemented on Oct. 19 by Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, 33 people have been referred for AOT. Of those 33 people, 27 are at different stages of treatment while the remaining six did not meet the program’s criteria. 

The implementation plan for the trial of Laura’s Law first involves an evaluation of those referred to the program by county behavioral staff. The resident will be persuaded 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.

According to Dawn Vercelli, chief of Substance Use Disorder Services for BHRS, no AOT cases have gone in front of a judge yet because the program is very new. 

“I think that it would be a successful outcome for BHRS is someone actually never had to go to court, because that would mean they actively engaged in one of our mental health programs and were getting the treatment that they needed,” said Vercelli. 

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.

There have been participants in AOT that BHRS has successfully put in contact with local mental health programs, Vercelli added, and a majority of those were referred by their family members. Family members have expressed gratitude for the new program.

“We’ve noticed that most of the referrals have come from concerned family members,” noted Vercelli. “We’ve gotten good feedback from some of them about having the option for them to refer their loved ones for treatment.”

Prior to Laura’s Law, mentally ill individuals would typically have to seek services on their own, and most were prompted by family members to do so. The AOT program takes the middle man out of the equation, allowing families to directly appeal for help for their loved one. 

“This program specifically allows for other people to make the referral on behalf of the individual, which is very different than our normal operations,” said Vercelli. 

BHRS hopes to see the program continue to grow and provide mental health services for those who may have never accessed them before, though the process won’t happen overnight.

“To actively engage with someone takes time — it’s relationship and rapport building,” Vercelli said. 

Additional information and referrals for AOT may be found online and may be made by completing the online referral form on the Stanislaus County website at  or by calling BHRS Warm Line at 558-4600.