Laura Wilcox was a 19-year-old college sophomore on winter break working as a temporary receptionist at the Nevada County Department of Behavioral Health Services on Jan. 10, 2001, when a severely mentally ill man named Scott Thorpe shot and killed her. He killed two other people that day.
The only good thing to come out of that terrible day was Laura’s Law, authored by former Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, with whom I served on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.
Passed in 2002, the law allows participating counties to obtain court orders to provide assisted outpatient treatment for seriously mentally ill people. In 2013, my colleague Don Saylor and others in the community pressed for adoption of Laura’s Law for Yolo County.
Conservative county supervisors regularly contact me to ask why I voted to adopt our version of Laura’s Law, and how it’s working. A few years ago, I probably would not have been so encouraging.
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The state had altered the law, providing some funding. But because of my libertarian bent, I wasn’t sure of its wisdom. I feared it could give government license to interfere in the lives of people who had not committed a crime. In time, however, I concluded that with the right people overseeing the program, it could be administered in a way that would protect individuals’ rights while also providing protection for them and others.
The law does offer safeguards. A court must make several findings about an individual before he or she can deemed eligible: They must be 18 or older, suffer from mental illness and have a history of non-compliance with treatment. The judge must find they are unlikely to survive without supervision, and would become worse in an unsupervised state.
Even with all these stipulations, I was concerned, so I have made a point of reviewing the program. Four years later, the data show that the law is working well in Yolo County, largely because of the mental health professionals who are implementing it.
Yolo County Mental Health Director Karen Larsen recently told my colleagues and me on the board about Antonia. Antonia had earned two engineering degrees from UC Davis, became a mother and acquired a full-time job.
Then bipolar illness caught up with her, and her life began to unravel. Many of the details are rightly confidential. But in a matter of a few months, she had lost her job, her home and custody of her son.
Using the power given to them by Laura’s Law, our county’s mental health care workers were able to help Antonia get the care she needed. Slowly, she became stable, regained joint custody of her son and returned to work. Antonia’s case is not isolated. Two dozen others have received help before they did serious harm to themselves or others.
“This program has the potential to be seen as taking away people’s rights,” Larsen said. “So to have over 93 percent of the participants satisfied with the services they received is pretty amazing.”
In my view, the key is trust for policymakers. If you don’t trust people implementing the program, then it would not be worth the potential abuse of liberties that it involves. Exercising discretion over who qualifies is important. Outcome matters, too.
Since we adopted Laura’s Law, Yolo County has experienced a 50 percent reduction in police calls and transportation to psychiatric hospitals involving the individuals being cared for under the law. The length of hospital stays has been reduced by two-thirds, and there has been nearly a 90 percent reduction in the time Laura’s Law patients are homeless.
In 2000 and 2001, Scott Thorpe exhibited many warning signs leading up to the day he killed Laura Wilcox, Pearlie Mae Feldman and Mike Markle in Nevada County. Thorpe was sent to Napa State Hospital. Presumably, he’s receiving the treatment he desperately needed 17 years ago. Unfortunately, three people had to die in order for him to receive that treatment.
So far, 17 counties in California have taken the step to adopt Laura’s Law. (Among those without it are Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Madera counties.) More should join. Conservative county supervisors regularly contact me to ask why I voted to adopt our version of Laura’s Law, and how it’s working. A few years ago, I probably would not have been so encouraging. But I’ve found that if you trust the people running the program, good things can happen. Lives can be changed. And lives can be saved.
Matt Rexroad is a Yolo County supervisor and former Woodland mayor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.