Help in crisis

Laura’s Law allows for involuntary commitment, but many counties, including Butte, have yet to sign on

Mental health advocates Lisa Currier (left) and Colleen Phipps tout a range of benefits from implementing Laura’s Law, including violence prevention.

Mental health advocates Lisa Currier (left) and Colleen Phipps tout a range of benefits from implementing Laura’s Law, including violence prevention.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Hear more about it:
Colleen Phipps will present a talk for Butte County Behavioral Health's Grand Rounds titled “Revisiting Laura's Law” March 22, 3 p.m., at 109 Parmac Road.

As director of Crisis Care Advocacy and Triage, Lisa Currier routinely encounters local residents in distress.

Sometimes she can de-escalate a situation, such as in one instance she vividly recalls, when she spent around four hours speaking with an agitated man along the side of his house—the last hour with four police officers out front.

Other times, she can’t. Speaking to the CN&R on Tuesday (Feb. 27) at her Chico office, she relayed the story of a homeless woman battling schizophrenia without psychiatric medication, instead medicating with illegal street drugs. This woman—sexually abused, beaten up—would lash out in anger at social service providers, to the extent that they’d call the Chico police Department.

Yet—despite five meetings in a year among Currier, the agency, CPD’s Target Team and Butte County Behavioral Health—no one with the authority to commit her to a psychiatric hold would do so, Currier said, “even though she’s a gravely disabled threat to herself and others.” Ultimately, the woman did hurt someone, an act of battery that led to her arrest and jailing.

Currier, along with fellow mental health advocate Colleen Phipps, lament such instances. They also look at recent mass shootings in Rancho Tehama and Parkland, Fla., committed by men with mental illnesses and wonder if those might have been prevented by intervention.

Both feel such violence may be forestalled by a piece of California legislation already on the books.

It’s called Laura’s Law. Adopted in 2002 and named after Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old fatally shot by a man with severe mental illness, the law allows a judge to order a comprehensive support program and assisted outpatient treatment for adults who are severely mentally ill, have threatened others and been hospitalized or jailed recently.

The treatment plan incorporates both behavioral health and criminal justice departments.

Here’s the catch: Counties must agree to implement Laura’s Law. To date, only 18 of 58 have done so, the most recent being Shasta. Supervisors there approved implementation in October 2015, but the roll-out did not occur until March 2017, with the opening of a new mental health center.

Butte County is not among the 18. Local advocates are preparing to change this.

The Butte County Board of Supervisors were given a presentation about Laura’s Law two years ago. As chronicled in the CN&R (“Looking into Laura’s Law,” Newslines, April 14, 2016), the supervisors—notably Larry Wahl, who represents Chico—found merit in the presentation, enough to direct county staff to assess potential funding and interdepartmental cooperation.

Behavioral Health Director Dorian Kittrell reported back four months later with a recommendation not to implement it “at this time” primarily due to considerations of labor and resources. Supervisors took no action.

“There was a lot on the plate of the [Behavioral Health] department as well as the significant implications it would have on the partner agencies that would have to implement Laura’s Law, too,” Kittrell told the CN&R by phone this week. He added that sentiment for the program “really varies when you go county to county and talk from [Behavioral Health] director to director; there are some that have implemented and come around to it, others who aren’t really supportive.”

Currier and Phipps see Laura’s Law as a benefit both financially for the county and personally for individuals.

Currier is calculating the costs to various departments (e.g., public defender, police, courts) to ascertain savings specific to Butte County, compared to savings registered elsewhere. Phipps said advocates’ part of the April 2016 presentation was heavy on “the compassion piece”—this would add hard numbers.

Phipps is president of NAMI Butte County, local affiliate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She’s passionate about Laura’s Law because, as she told the supervisors, she feels assisted outpatient treatment could have helped her son and potentially averted the fatal car accident he caused while in a psychotic state. Donovan Phipps, convicted of murder, drew a lengthy prison sentence.

Even if Laura’s Law helps just a few people, or even one, she sees its value.

“In the foreseeable future,” Phipps added, “we might be able to prevent some type of tragedy that is similar to those that have happened—by having Laura’s Law.”

NAMI Butte County, headquartered at Currier’s office, has held several events this year to build momentum. Should its members ask the county to reconsider, they’ll have willing ears from Wahl.

“I would welcome it as an informational [agenda item] and be happy to hear their pitch on how we could make this happen in our county,” he said by phone Tuesday evening. “I wouldn’t give it a whole lot of odds of getting through right now, but it’s worth listening to, to see if there’s some way we could go to it.”