The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by Madeleine Brand

Laura's Law might have helped Fullerton homeless man before tragedy struck

A photograph of Kelly Thomas in downtown Fullerton, CA.
A photograph of Kelly Thomas in downtown Fullerton, CA.
Photo by Friends for Fullerton

Listen to story

Download this story 2.0MB

Kelly Thomas, the homeless man who died in July after allegedly being beaten by Fullerton police, had a long history of battling schizophrenia. He went on and off medication and refused treatment for years.

With proper care Kelly may have been able to be helped, but legally a mentally ill person cannot be forced to undergo treatment unless they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. By then it's often too late.

Because Kelly was an adult, there was little his parents could do legally to get him treatment, though there is a law on the books in California that could get around this problem.

"Laura's Law" was put in place 10 years ago following the death of a 19-year-old woman who was killed when a mentally ill man went on a shooting spree.

On Thursday's Madeleine Brand Show, Kelly's father Ron Thomas explained his frustration trying to get treatment for his son, saying "the facts are when you're over 18 years old, not a danger to yourself or others and not committing a crime, you're a free citizen. So reluctantly his mother filed a restraining order. Then they would have a tool to bring him in for at least 72 hours of observation."

Carla Jacobs with the California Treatment Advocacy Coalition spoke on the Madeleine Brand Show Friday to explain how Laura's Law works and why only a single county in the state has implemented it.

In Kelly Thomas' case, Jacobs said, "Even though he was deteriorating, he hadn't reached the level of danger that would have put him into a psychiatric hospital."

Had Thomas been a resident of Nevada County, Jacobs said Thomas' parents could have requested that the Department of Mental Health send a case manager to mentally evaluate him.

In Nevada County case managers first try to encourage the person to seek treatment on their own. If they are too ill to accept treatment, case managers can seek a court order to require the person to begin a treatment plan, Jacobs said.

"It's not the forced taking of drugs," she said. "You can't force somebody to take medication unless they're in a licensed hospital, but the treatment plan would definitely include medication and include the supervision of the person taking medication."

So far, the program has been successful in Nevada County, with 23 individuals receiving treatment because of it, Jacobs said.

"The judge up in Nevada County says that it has been so successful that they have been able to reduce what we call a 5150 call, which is an emergency call for somebody with psychiatric services because they are acting in a dangerous way to themselves or others. It has reduced those calls by over 50 percent," she said.

So why has only one of California's 58 counties implemented Laura's Law?

"It's a funding issue, it's also an ideological issue," Jacobs said. "We never would want to take somebody's decision-making power away from them."

Laura's Law also includes an amendment that requires each county to pass a resolution to implement it, and that, Jacobs said, "is like trying to pass a law in 58 states instead of just one."