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OC considers 'Laura's Law' to help mentally ill

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. Some say the facility is one of the largest mental health institutions in the country.
The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. Some say the facility is one of the largest mental health institutions in the country.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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Orange County is looking at implementing 'Laura's Law' to help people with severe mental illness and their families. The Orange County Homeless Commission held a hearing Friday on whether to recommend the county fund Laura's Law to get treatment and social services to mentally ill adults.

The push comes following the death of 33-year-old Kelly Thomas. The homeless man with schizophrenia died after police beat him. Two Fullerton police officers now face criminal charges in his death.

Thomas' father, Ron said he wished he'd had some way to get his son Kelly off the street and into the care he needed. He said he wasn't left with many options: "It's very frustrating without any tools to use you have to watch them walk away. So you're helpless."

As Thomas talked, strangers walked up and offered condolences for his son's death – and appreciation for what he's done for the mentally ill.

Thomas sat at the farmers market in downtown Fullerton where he meets regularly with supporters.

"So many people are helpless," he said. "A lot of people have come up to me and asked, 'What can I do, Ron? How can I be of help to my child?'"

He said as horrible as it sounds, the system had forced Kelly's mother to get a restraining order against him in order to get him in the system.

Often, mentally ill people only can get treatment if they're declared a danger to themselves or others. Many refuse treatment because they don't realize they have a problem.

"Right now in California, you are three times more likely to be in jail if you have severe mental illness than to be in a hospital," said Carla Jacobs, who has been advocating for the mentally ill for years.

She helped write Laura's Law with the aim to intervene sooner, to get help to the mentally ill without having to reach that danger zone.

"The vast majority of people with mental illness are not dangerous. Some of them are just very, very ill. Parents are forced into a position where they know their loved one has a neurobiological disorder that impacts their ability to make reasoned decisions. But they cannot get medical treatment for that person unless the adult is dangerous."

Instead, Laura's Law involves court-ordered outpatient treatment along with intensive social services to get patients off the streets, into housing and into a structure of receiving ongoing medical care. Without that, advocates say the mentally ill too often end up in jail, usually for nuisance crimes that come from living outside. The twin towers of the L.A. County Jail in downtown Los Angeles is considered one of the largest mental health institutions in the country.

"People can get well and stay well with community services. But to get well, they need treatment. And without that in our communities what we have done is we have reverted to medieval idea of having people locked in prison and jails," said Jacobs.

Laura's Law has been on the books in the state of California for 10 years. But it's hardly been implemented. It passed after 19-year-old college student Laura Wilcox died when a man with untreated mental illness opened fire in Nevada County. After passing it, state lawmakers left it to each county's discretion to implement, or not. So far only Nevada County has done that.

After Kelly Thomas died, Orange County supervisors asked the health department to look into Laura's Law.

Mark Refowitz is in charge of the department's behavioral health services. He said the county has expanded other volunteer programs in recent years with positive results, "We have a significant reduction in homelessness. We have a significant reduction in hospitalizations. And we have a significant reduction in re-arrests in our full service partnerships. Granted the difference is, they are voluntary."

Refowitz said putting Laura's Law to work in Orange County will cost $5 million. Advocates say it would be about a tenth of that. And they say the health department could use Proposition 63 money, which pays for mental health care.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors got the health department report last month but hasn't acted on it yet. County boards in Mendocino, Sacramento and San Francisco counties are considering it as well.