Santa Clara County proceeds with controversial mental health treatment law
Santa Clara County is moving forward with implementing a controversial law that allows authorities to order psychiatric treatment for people with serious mental illness. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Santa Clara County is moving forward with implementing a controversial law that allows authorities to order psychiatric treatment for people with serious mental illness.

The county Board of Supervisors gave the Behavioral Health Services Department the go-ahead at the end of August to begin hiring staff who will work in a Laura’s Law assisted outpatient treatment program slated to start in February.

Laura’s Law allows, in specific circumstances, a court to compel services to an individual struggling with mental health who refuses treatment.

Margaret Obilor, director of adult and older adult services for the behavioral health department, said the county is in the early stages of starting services. She says the focus right now is hiring workers, conducting training, developing appropriate policies and procedures and finalizing the on-site location for the program.

“We are looking at really creating the infrastructure necessary to do this work,” Obilor told San José Spotlight.

How did the law get its name?

Laura’s Law is named after Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old woman killed in 2001 while working as a receptionist at the Nevada County Department of Behavioral Health. The man who killed Wilcox was a former patient of the county’s outpatient mental health clinic.

The California Legislature passed the law nearly 20 years ago, but recent legislation required counties to formally opt in or out by June 30. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in May to opt in after years of advocates and elected officials calling for the law’s implementation. To date, at least 23 of California’s 58 counties use the program, according to the California Association of Local Behavioral Health ​Boards & Commissions.

Obilor says the board approved the hiring of 11 positions for what will essentially serve as a behavioral outpatient clinic similar to others already operating in the county. The first round of staffing is scheduled to be finalized in November. Six of those hired will deal directly with patients while the remaining five will handle data entry, Obilor said.

“There’s a lot of tracking and data requests from the state that is required for this program,” Obilor said.

The department will then go back to the board in February for approval to hire an additional seven workers, Obilor said, that will likely include psychologists, psychiatric social workers, marriage and family therapists, peer support workers, contact managers and health services representatives, as well as a manager to oversee the program.

The county will also form an advisory committee of community stakeholders to help inform the program’s plan. The application process is scheduled to start this month and be finalized by November.

‘It’s a step in the right direction’

Early proponents for enacting Laura’s Law locally say they’re encouraged to hear Santa Clara County is moving forward with its implementation.

Katherine Decker‘s son was a San Jose police officer shot to death by a suicidal man during a routine police call about six years ago. Decker, a nurse and advocate for improving mental health care locally and statewide, says she’s pleased the county is getting the program going.

“There’s so many times that the system is so broken,” Decker said. “So if this is a baby step toward helping the mentally ill, family members and the whole situation… it’s a step in the right direction.”

Former San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis told San José Spotlight he feels excited and optimistic, calling the program a “fantastic first step.” During his time on the City Council, Khamis championed efforts to implement Laura’s Law in Santa Clara County.

“I’m proud of the supervisors for finally passing it, although I wish it could be implemented faster,” Khamis said, adding that he hopes the program will eventually expand “to include the severely drug addicted folks” and that the county implements and tracks achievable metrics for its success.

‘There are better options’

However, some members of the community remain skeptical of the assisted outpatient treatment program.

Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, previously voiced opposition to the county adopting Laura’s Law. He says that in some cases he can understand how the law could be helpful, especially for family members trying to get help for a loved one.

However, Perry takes issue with the program being portrayed as an all-encompassing answer to homelessness. He says those with mental health issues only make up a subset of the homeless population.

“Just the confusion of homelessness and mental health is really a problem,” Perry told San José Spotlight, noting that often residents seeking help voluntarily also don’t have access to services they need.

Law Foundation of Silicon Valley Directing Attorney Abre’ Conner says the foundation opposes any kind of involuntary treatment methods because it takes away a person’s voice in the process, leaving open the door to violate someone’s civil rights.

“There are better options to offer that would allow for more voluntary resources,” Conner said. “And we hope that if the county does continue to move forward with this, that it’s only used as a last resort.”

But San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez says assisted outpatient treatment proves to be invaluable to other counties that have implemented Laura’s Law.

“I hope to see this program quickly up and running soon so that our most vulnerable can begin to receive services they need and bring relief to our impacted communities,” he said.

Contact Cassie Dickman at [email protected] or follow @byCassieDickman on Twitter.

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