In a decision that had “been a long time coming,” the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed Tuesday to study how Laura’s Law could be implemented in the county in an effort to help people with serious untreated mental illness.
The decision came after the supervisors heard from a host of family members calling for the county to do more to help their loved ones.
The effort has been spearheaded by District Attorney Joyce Dudley and Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who have been working together on the Isla Vista Safety Committee to craft solutions in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings that left seven people dead on May 23.
A quadruple homicide that took place last month in Goleta has added new urgency to the discussion.
Farr and Dudley have said it’s impossible to know if Laura’s Law could have prevented the recent deaths, but that treatment of mentally ill people could serve to prevent another tragedy.
The supervisors approved Tuesday’s motion and directed the CEO’s office to look into the resources needed to move forward with Laura’s Law in the county and report on the findings within six months.
The unanimous vote from the dais garnered hearty applause from the public gathered in the board room.
At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Farr said that since she first took office, she’s been hearing different families tell the same story of loved ones with mental illness refusing treatment only to end up incarcerated or homeless.
That could change if the county approves Laura’s Law, which would allow a judge the ability to order a six-month treatment program for an adult with an untreated mental illness who is unlikely to survive safely in the community.
A family member, law enforcement officer, housemate, hospital or health agency director, or director of a nonprofit agency can petition for a referral, and a judge will ultimately decide whether the person qualifies for court-ordered treatment.
There are conditions: The person must have been placed in psychiatric hospitalization or incarcerated in the last 36 months and/or committed violence toward themselves or others in the last 48 months, and must have been offered voluntary treatment and failed to engage and be substantially deteriorating.
Dudley and two other officials traveled earlier this summer to Nevada County, where the law originated, to see how it has affected that Northern California community.
Santa Barbara County has looked into the law before over the past decade but never implemented a full version of it.
The closest it came was in 2010, when the county’s Mental Health Commission instituted a “Laura’s Law Lite,” which reached out aggressively to mentally ill people, but did not have the judicial requirement to order a person into treatment.
That resulted in “an infinite circle” of outreach to the person by a clinician, according to county counsel Michael Ghizzoni, because if the person did not consent to treatment, the most clinicians could do is keeping trying to convince them to accept care.
Now, proponents of the law saw that with the Affordable Care Act in effect and new ADMHS grants coming in, the department could have more of a possibility of moving forward with Laura’s Law.
Dudley and ADMHS director of clinical programs Michael Craft made the presentation to the board on Tuesday morning, and said Nevada County has seen a decrease in hospitalizations and jail stays since implementing the law
“These results are very exciting,” she said. “I believe if we implement Laura’s Law, we will have another means by which to protect the innocent and prevent crime.”
Supervisor Salud Carbajal said housing still remains critical to treating homeless mentally ill people, but that he was supportive of looking into the law.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said, adding that he was pleased all of the stakeholders are coming to the table.
Supervisor Peter Adam said forcing someone to appear before a judge might “seem a little heavy-handed” but added that “may be the only way we can get some people to engage.”
During public comment, about a dozen people spoke, many who had experienced mental illness on personal level.
Lorraine Neenan described her adult son’s life as an “unending roller coaster of hospitalizations, conservatorships, incarceration, homelessness and victimization” because of his severe schizophrenia.
He has a lack of insight about his illness, which has lead him to refuse treatment. Once after being held for three weeks at the county’s psychiatric health facility, he was released and returned to his parent’s home, where he soon had a psychotic break, shattering every “window, mirror and glazed frame in our house,” she said, adding that he was arrested by sheriff’s deputies shortly after.
“The emotional costs are incalculable,” she said.
Jan Winter of NAMI of Southern Santa Barbara County said the group supports Laura’s Law being implemented in the county, but cautioned that the effort should be “undertaken in a spirit of humility.”
Winter said that because of the lack of insight many people with severe mental illness experience, they may not think they need help at all.
“How terrifying it must be to be told to not trust your own decision,” she said, while telling those people that they must trust someone else for help.
Back on the dais, family members got a sympathetic reception from supervisors.
“We’ve heard these stories before,” Supervisor Janet Wolf said. “It’s been very difficult to hear the stories, but I do feel that this opportunity to embrace Laura’s Law may help.
“This is really a difficult issue but I think this is the right step for us to take.”
Adam also offered some comments about the changes, and said that if it had been easy to fix the problems with mental health law “it would have been done a long time ago.”
Supervisor Steve Lavagnino also said he’s grateful for the increased attention to mental health in the county.
“It seems like it’s a priority for all of our board members,” he said.