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A year after adoption, Kern County officials praise 'Laura's Law'

Officials with Kern County Behavioral Health & Recovery Services have high praise for Laura's Law, an initiative adopted to increase the number of people who receive therapy for debilitating mental illnesses. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

Nearly a year and a half after Kern County supervisors adopted Laura's Law, the county's mental health providers say it has been a positive change.

Dr. Brad Cloud, the deputy director of the county's freshly rebranded Behavioral Health & Recovery Services agency, is in the process now of compiling a required report for the state legislature about how the new set of mental health policies has worked out for his clientele.

Laura's Law gives health care providers new authority to coerce people into getting needed treatment using a civil court process.

The bill's namesake, Laura Wilcox, was killed in Northern California by a man with a mental illness who had previously refused treatment. Officials already have authority to place a psychiatric hold on people who are believed to pose a danger to themselves or others. The process is known in police circles as a 51-50 call.

Laura's Law was written to reach people prior to them becoming dangerous.

Some worried the law would be a threat to sacred civil liberties, but it's proponents say there are people with rapidly deteriorating conditions who need more than a nudge to get the help they need.

Such people, proponents say, spend considerable time in jails and local hospitals, accruing large bills that taxpayers are often forced to shoulder. Many untreated patients are homeless.

The state legislature left it to individual counties to adopt on their own. In late 2015, Kern was the ninth county in California to implement it.

In the last six months, 50 previously untreated people with mental illnesses have enrolled in Assisted Outpatient Therapy who might not have without Laura's Law, according to county data.

"They're seeing doctors and therapists and our recovery specialists. They're learning skills for how to take care of themselves, how to take care of their medication," Cloud said.

Laura's Law created a team of outreach staff who identify and encourage participation in therapy. The goal is always voluntary commitments and mental health advocates say therapy works better when patients choose themselves to do it.

In the first full year operating with the new authority, Kern officials say they "got close," but never used the court system to compel such therapy.

"There is a way to use carrots to get people into the treatment and I think we've improved our ability to do that gradually over and over in this process," Cloud said.

Cloud says that the therapy works. Patients who engage in outpatient therapy spend about 20-30 days fewer on average in the hospital over the course of a year. Such hospital visits typically cost $1,500 per day.

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