Losing Laura

It’s been five years since Laura Wilcox’s tragic death. Whatever happened to ‘Laura’s Law’?

The death of Laura Wilcox led to the creation of Laura’s Law.

The death of Laura Wilcox led to the creation of Laura’s Law.

Courtesy Of Wilcox Family

On January 10, 2001, Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old college student, was gunned down by Scott Harlan Thorpe in a Nevada City public mental-health clinic.

On January 1, 2003, “Laura’s Law” took effect in California, giving family members—those who often notice signs that their loved ones’ health is deteriorating before anyone else—more power to intervene before the person becomes a danger to themselves or others.

Nick and Amanda Wilcox, Laura’s parents, advocated for the new law as strongly as anyone. “If [assisted outpatient treatment] had been available, Scott Thorpe’s family could have gotten him the help he so desperately needed,” Nick told SN&R.

Fast-forward to January 2006—and the five-year anniversary of Laura’s tragic death. With the exception of Los Angeles County, Laura’s Law has yet to be implemented in any of California’s 57 other counties. A big reform with no teeth; a paper tiger.

The 41-year-old Thorpe had a long history of mental illness and had been in and out of treatment repeatedly—most recently at the very clinic where Laura was working. At the time he walked into the clinic and opened fire, killing both Laura and another clinic employee, he was clearly past the point where outpatient treatment was an option. His psychosis then led him to drive to a nearby restaurant, where he shot and killed a 24-year-old manager.

But rather than view Thorpe as a “deranged killer,” then-California Assemblywoman Helen Thompson, along with other proponents of mental-health-treatment law reform, saw a chance to highlight the flaws inherent in California’s antiquated treatment laws they claimed ultimately victimized both the individual with mental illness and society at large. Thorpe, they contended, was as much a victim of his untreated mental illness as the people he ultimately killed.

Laura’s father, Nick, agreed then and agrees now. “What’s so sad is that now that [Thorpe is] in a mental hospital and being forced to take his medicine, he’s highly treatable,” Nick said. “His brother and sister-in-law say that here he is, acting normally now, and he’s committed three murders. And that’s a very sad commentary.”

By all accounts, the tragedy could have been prevented had family members, doctors and case managers had a vehicle for compelling Thorpe to accept treatment outside of a hospital setting long before he reached the stage at which he was a danger to himself and others—the criteria required for a 72-hour hold, known as a “5150.” (Indeed, family members testified that they had tried unsuccessfully for years to get Thorpe to consistently stay with treatment.)

The new law provides a way—through specialized mental-health courts—for judges to mandate outpatient treatment for persons who, though not meeting the current standard for involuntary inpatient commitment, are at serious risk of continued decline if treatment is not accepted. Such an order could be imposed only if, during a formal hearing, a litany of criteria were found to be true.

Despite successes in other states—most notably in New York, where “Kendra’s Law” has exceeded expectations by reducing hospitalizations, incarcerations and homelessness across the board by 74 percent to 87 percent among the chronically mentally ill—California has left the assisted-outpatient-treatment law to languish.

Many who had fought for the law are frustrated, disappointed and angry.

Mental-health advocate Heidi Sanborn said the law could save lives, if local governments ever fund it.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“There’s a lack of political will,” said Thompson, now a Yolo County supervisor, “a clash of belief systems.

“It’s the play-out between the social-rehabilitation model of treatment and those who believe that the very seriously mentally ill need more than that. They need medication, management plans, close case management—a higher level of care. These are the people who often cost the highest amount of money, because without care, they end up in our jails and on our streets, and that’s why the police chiefs and sheriffs in our state are looking for help as well.”

One of the initial pitfalls was that the law came with no funding. As a result, county participation was voluntary. So, if you live in a county that hasn’t set up the programs to implement the law, the law has no effect.

But many advocates and government officials believed the money angle would be taken care of with the influx of Proposition 63 monies—funds garnered through the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) passed by voters by an overwhelming margin in November 2004—giving counties an influx of cash to provide additional services to the mentally ill.

But there’s been a lot of disagreement over whether Proposition 63 money can be used to fund involuntary treatment programs. “And that’s disappointed a lot of people,” Thompson lamented.

Indeed, the Wilcoxes believed so strongly in Proposition 63 and the help it would give to funding Laura’s Law that they gave $15,000 to the campaign, making them the largest private donor to the campaign. The money came from their wrongful-death settlement with Nevada County, Nick said.

“It is truly unfortunate that the many people who might have benefited from the measure have gone without desperately needed treatment,” he said of counties’ failure to implement Laura’s Law. “It seems that a person’s right to be sick carries more weight than does society’s duty to provide for the welfare of those in great need.”

Sacramento County is about to receive $9 million for its first installment of Proposition 63 funds, and the county board of supervisors is meeting to discuss how to distribute those funds on January 17. But don’t expect the county to fund Laura’s Law anytime soon, despite strong recommendation from some on its own task force.

“This subject has been one of considerable controversy,” said Roger Dickinson, chairman of the county board of supervisors. “Some feel it’s very beneficial and can help a great deal, while others feel it’s potentially invasive, and, as a result, I think there’s been reluctance here and elsewhere to take advantage [of the law],” Dickinson explained.

“There’s dissension in the mental-health ranks as well, so it’s probably not up on the list of funding priorities, even though the law’s available.”

Heidi Sanborn, who participated in the county’s task force on the MHSA and also serves as the executive director of the Sacramento chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), isn’t ready to throw in the towel. “There’s two types of people,” she explained, “those who can identify they’re sick and those whose disease robs them of their insight to understand they need help. It’s not fair to either group to just have one set of services available. We have to have both voluntary and involuntary programs at the same time.”

As for why Sacramento County has yet to make the implementation of Laura’s Law a priority, Sanborn said, “All I know is that people are dying.”

With some disgust, Sanborn recalled the recent death of Barbara Maxie, a homeless woman believed to be mentally ill who died alone on a bus-stop bench October 2.

“Everyone tried to get her help, but she didn’t have the insight to know she needed it,” Sanborn continued. “We keep ignoring these people, and I can’t understand how people think this is humane. The tools are in place, and nobody’s using them.”