Laura's Law, Forced Psychiatric Treatment, and a Visalia Couple's Schizophrenic Son

The debate over Laura’s Law and involuntary psychiatric treatment and hospitalization continues in California.

Origins of Laura’s Law

Mental HealthLaura’s Law allows for court-ordered psychiatric treatment including forced anti-psychotics, assisted outpatient treatment and various other types of judicially imposed psychiatric assistance. Laura’s Law is named after Laura Wilcox, who was killed by a mental health patient at the Nevada County public mental health clinic in January 2001. The perpetrator, Scott Harlan Thorpe, had refused and resisted treatment despite a history of violent and troublesome conduct.

The State of California has given counties the option to implement Laura’s Law. Until recently, Nevada County was the only county to have the law on the books. However, Orange County recently adopted Laura’s Law and a limited number of other counties are considering or have already implemented modified forms of the law.

Opposition to Laura’s Law

Opponents of Laura’s Law deride the legislation as an unfair—and expensive—government intrusion into the lives of private citizens. Many of the opponents of Laura’s Law favor a peer-wellness approach to mental health and rehabilitation. The peer-wellness approach focuses on having fellow patients serve as counselors and coaches, encouraging the mentally ill to stay on the straight and narrow.

The peer-wellness approach failed James Allen, a 25-year-old paranoid schizophrenic from Visalia, CA who was fatally shot outside his family home after threatening his mother with a knife. Carol and George Allen, James’ parents, believe that if Laura’s Law had been adopted in Tulare County, their son may still be alive.

James Allen had several incidents leading up to his tragic death, including one in which he stabbed himself over 20 times and severed both Achilles tendons and a wrist. He was hospitalized for a mere five days in the aftermath. Securing county mental health treatment for James was almost impossible, due to insurance issues and legal roadblocks. Carol and George were unable to obtain conservatorship rights to force James into treatment.

Can Laura’s Law Save Lives?

Debates over civil rights, funding and the potential for success hamper widespread implementation of Laura’s Law. Nevada County Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderson—the only judge to invoke Laura’s Law to date—believes that the efficacy of the law is dependent upon a patient’s respect for—or fear of—the legal system. He sees it as an effective threat—voluntarily seek treatment, or the courts will order you into a program of its choosing. However, as in the case of James Allen, the threat of forced treatment is neither universally available nor universally appreciated. The debate over Laura’s Law is sure to continue into the future, but as more counties adopt the law—or variations thereof—it is hard not to wonder whether Laura’s Law may have saved the lives of James Allen, others with serious mental health issues, and those who have been injured or killed by someone with a history of mental disturbance.

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