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Mother Behind Laura’s Law on a Mission to Transform Mental Health Care System

Fighting for change in memory of her slain daughter, Amanda Wilcox brings cause to Coalition Against Gun Violence benefit

Amanda Wilcox admits mental illness wasn’t on her radar until her daughter’s death.

Laura Wilcox was a 19-year-old college sophomore when she died in a 2001 shooting rampage by a man with severe mental illness. Her death was the catalyst to change state law so courts could order mental health treatment.
Laura Wilcox was a 19-year-old college sophomore when she died in a 2001 shooting rampage by a man with severe mental illness. Her death was the catalyst to change state law so courts could order mental health treatment. (Wilcox family photo)

But that was before a man with severe mental illness opened fire in a Nevada City mental health clinic, where her 19-year-old daughter, Laura, was working during winter break. The Haverford College sophomore and two others were killed in the January 2001 rampage, and reforming the barriers to treatment became the mission of Wilcox’s life.

Wilcox and her husband, Nick, are the driving force behind Laura’s Law, which provides for assisted outpatient treatment for people who are unable to — or won’t — access mental health services voluntarily. Under the law, a court can order those with severe mental illness, and who are resisting treatment, to get help while remaining in their homes and communities.

The Wilcoxes will be in Santa Barbara on Sunday to speak at the Coalition Against Gun Violence’s 17th anniversary gala celebration at the Santa Barbara Club, 1105 Chapala St.

On Thursday, Noozhawk talked with Wilcox, who spoke about the family’s journey to get Laura’s Law passed in the Legislature and signed by the governor, and what it could mean for counties like Santa Barbara.

Wilcox said that Scott Thorpe, the man who was convicted of killing her daughter and two others, was not receiving treatment. His family had been concerned and reached out numerous times for help from mental health agencies but had gotten no response, she said.

“That’s one thing we learned right away,” Wilcox said. “Once a loved one is over 18 years old, and won’t seek treatment on their own, there’s nothing families can do.”

The circumstances leave two options: wait until that person is hospitalized, or arrested, she said. Santa Barbara County law enforcement officials have often lamented that the County Jail has become a de facto mental health facility.

Laura’s Law has only been approved in Nevada County, where the Wilcox family lives, although other counties have adopted pilot programs. Los Angeles County has implemented such a program, and last year it published a report that revealed the program has seen success.

The Santa Barbara County Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services put a pilot program in place last year but without the ability to court-order treatment.

Under the pilot program, the county’s Assertive Community Treatment, or ACT, team takes up to 15 new patients who qualify under the conditions of Laura’s Law. This means the person must have a serious mental illness, be in deteriorating condition and be refusing to seek treatment on his or her own.

As with Laura’s Law, the person’s family, friends, social workers and other qualified people can nominate the person for treatment. If the individual qualifies, ACT members will approach the person for up to 90 days to try to convince him or her to seek treatment voluntarily.

ADMHS director Ann Detrick told Noozhawk that since the county’s pilot program began last year, 20 referrals have been received from family, law enforcement and other community members about people who may be at risk because of untreated mental illness. She said the time between first interaction with the ACT team and when a person decides to receive services has been as varied as 15 days to six months.

But as the program stands, a person can continue to resist treatment.

ADMHS officials have said the full implementation of the court element won’t be instituted as a result of a lack of funding.

When Laura’s Law was passed in 2001, the funding attached to the bill was stripped to deal with other budget issues. Now it’s up to counties to pay for the program. Wilcox said Nevada County has funded the program via the Mental Health Services Act, the 2004 voter-approved Proposition 63 that imposes a 1 percent income tax on personal income in excess of $1 million.

ADMHS officials have said that involuntary treatment can’t be funded with Mental Health Services Act monies, but Wilcox disagrees.

“I question that,” she said, adding that court procedures can’t be paid for with that money, but the treatment portion of the program can.

Wilcox said she thinks counties don’t embrace the concept for three reasons:

» There is a misunderstanding of what Mental Health Services Act monies can be used for.

» Mental health directors have been reluctant to take on the law.

» Counties have been threatened with lawsuits by consumer rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

Wilcox said she understands the civil rights concerns about involuntary treatment.

“It is a big deal,” she said. “We are talking about doing something against someone’s will.”

But she said she’s always argued that receiving treatment at home is far more restrictive than the person ending up in a mental health conservatorship, or worse, in jail.

She also raises the question: “What about Laura’s civil rights?”

Wilcox admits that Nevada County has fewer people than many of California’s 58 counties, but she said it has reduced hospitalizations and incarcerations dramatically among those with mental illness.

“Right away, we started hearing positive outcomes,” she said. “The outcomes were better than anyone dreamed. We’ve heard families say ‘I have my loved one back’.”

Laura’s Law is set to sunset in 2014, so the Wilcoxes have been working to keep it on the books.

The couple will honor their daughter at the close of Sunday’s Coalition Against Gun Violence luncheon with a “bell ceremony” in memory of victims of gun violence, including those killed in the 2006 shooting at the Storke Road postal processing facility in Goleta. The nonprofit coalition is inviting anyone who has lost a family member to gun violence to ring a bell as well.

Sunday’s event begins at 11:30 a.m. The charge for the event, including lunch, is $70 for members, $80 for nonmembers and $90 for a coalition membership and luncheon. For reservations and additional information, call 805.564.6803.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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