Alameda County to vote on controversial Laura’s Law for mental health treatment

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Alameda County will decide at its Tuesday meeting whether or not to adopt a test program allowing for the involuntary, assisted treatment of mentally ill people who are not currently receiving, or are resistant to, mental health services.

The 2002 state law — called Laura’s Law and implemented only at county discretion — allows for court-ordered outpatient treatment of people with a documented history of mental illness.

Two years ago, Daniel DeWitt, a man with a history of mental illness, was charged with the murder of Berkeley resident Peter Cukor but was later ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Candy DeWitt — mother of Daniel DeWitt — organized the group Voices of the Mothers to advocate changes in the California mental health system and, in particular, the implementation of Laura’s Law.

“Laura’s Law is needed because many that suffer with serious mental illness are not able to understand that they’re ill,” Candy DeWitt said. “It’s a very compassionate law, and it really tries to work with the person to stay well and out of crisis.”

Berkeley City Council also advised Alameda County supervisors to adopt the law in a November resolution. As of now, only Los Angeles County and Nevada County have opted into the law.

“Nevada County has saved money by keeping (mentally ill) people out of this very expensive revolving door of emergency rooms and short-term mental health facilities.” said Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio, who introduced the resolution to the council.

The nonprofit Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services, which aids in the recovery of those with mental health issues throughout Alameda County, intends to speak in opposition to the law’s Alameda adoption at Tuesday’s meeting.

Lisa Smusz, executive director of PEERS, said she’s concerned the success of the program model in Nevada County would not translate well to Alameda County based on the demographic and size difference. She also raised issues on the ethical dimensions of the law.

“(The law is) talking about making rules that restrict the rights or take away the civil rights of a group of people,” Smusz said. “We allow all sorts of people with different kinds of backgrounds to make decisions about medical treatment that they will or will not have. So for instance, if I’m diagnosed with cancer, I can make a decision on whether I want to do chemotherapy, about whether I want to do surgery, anything at all, and that’s my right as an individual, even if it’s causing me harm or even my death.”

However, Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan believes Laura’s Law is a “compassionate” alternative to section 5150, which allows the involuntary psychiatric hold of the mentally ill when they are deemed to be a harm to themselves or others.

“Under the system now, mental health patients get more stigmatized, more traumatized — they lose more of their rights under the 5150,” Chan said.

Five patients who meet provisions under Laura’s Law will undergo treatment as part of the pilot program should the board of supervisors approve the measure.

Jeff Landa covers city news. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JeffLanda.

A previous version of this article omitted part of a quote from PEERS executive director Lisa Smusz.