By PAUL ANDERSON
City News Service
Orange County supervisors today unanimously approved creating an outpatient program for the severely mentally ill that could provide for court-ordered treatment under the state Laura's Law.
County officials estimate the program will cost $5.7 million to $6.1 million annually for the treatment of about 120 patients.
Supporters of the law, including some who have struggled with mental health issues, encouraged supervisors to approve the program while critics said it would inhibit civil liberties and would not help the intended anyway.
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly Thomas -- the homeless man beaten to death in a struggle with Fullerton police -- told supervisors that a version of Laura's Law may have helped his son, who he said had struggled with schizophrenia.
When his son decided he didn't want to be on medication anymore is the time "he spiraled down," Thomas said.
"That's why we need Laura's Law, so that the mentally ill won't have that option" to refuse help.
Thomas said the law likely "would not have saved Kelly" the night he was fatally beaten, "but prior to that he may not have been in Fullerton if Laura's Law was here."
Michael Sitton held up before-and-after pictures of his daughter, who has struggled with mental health problems.
"Everybody that spoke to her said she is completely insane, and yet they say she has the right to choose" treatment, Sitton said.
Thomas said, "I really sympathize with this gentleman," and wished he had also brought pictures of his son. In the photos that show him looking normal, Kelly Thomas was on medication, his father said.
One woman who has struggled with mental illness implored supervisors to approve the new program.
"... I hope you pass it because it will save lives. I don't want to die again," she said.
Supervisor John Moorlach, who brought the issue to the board, noted the suicide of Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren's son, Matthew, last year.
"That made national news," Moorlach said. "We cannot allow our jails to be the predominant location for the mentally ill... This is a real leadership opportunity."
Supervisor Todd Spitzer pushed for strict oversight of the program to make sure it is having an effect, but he otherwise supported it. Spitzer criticized the civil libertarians who opposed the law.
"You don't have your liberty when you can't control your own person," Spitzer said. "When you're not in control of your destiny, society has obligations."
Supervisor Patricia Bates, once a social worker, said the county has a "moral obligation" to help the mentally ill when possible.
Supervisor Janet Nguyen said the law was "long overdue," and advised opponents of the law that the patients still have "due process" to challenge any court-ordered treatment.
Board Chairman Shawn Nelson knocked critics who said the program was unproven.
"Without trying something how else would we know if it works or not?" Nelson said.
Orange County Health Care Agency's Behavioral Health Services Director said the law applies to adults suffering from a mental illness who are deemed unlikely to survive without supervision. They must also show a history of not participating in needed mental health treatment and their health must be "substantially deteriorating."
Other necessary requirements include at least two psychiatric hospitalizations or jailings within the prior three years or engagement in a violent or attempted violent incident over the past four years.
Those who can request the treatment are immediate family, adults living with the ill person, a director of a treatment agency or organization, a licensed mental health professional treating the subject or law enforcement official supervising the individual.
The process of determining who would be placed in treatment would be handled as a civil matter in the courts. The Orange County Public Defender's Office will help advise those who resist the treatment.
There are no civil or criminal penalties for violating a court order or treatment plan.
A hearing can be called to challenge continued treatment every two months.
No one can be forced to take medication, and the treatment programs will have a 1-to-10 patient to staff ratio.
The program is expected to begin in October.
--City News Service