Writer • Editor • Teacher

Author: David Spencer

Letter to the Editor: Mental health care


I want to commend reporter Sigrid Bathen for her thorough and excellent reporting on an issue important to so many people: providing mental health care for our loved ones.

Ms. Bathen’s two-part series shined a critical light on some counties’ resistance to adopting Laura’s Law to enhance outpatient services to those with severe mental health issues.

It is mystifying that two of California’s largest counties – Sacramento and Santa Clara – have declined to implement a program that has proven to be effective in reducing  hospitalizations, homelessness and incarceration. I understand the concerns over our state’s history of “warehousing” the mentally ill. But we have moved well past that approach to mental health services. As the State Auditor made clear in a blistering report last year, California must do more to ensure that those with serious mental illness receive adequate ongoing care through Laura’s Law.

Today our state tolerates a different kind of abuse: neglecting the needs of people with mental illness and then steering too many of them into our court and prison system, as Ms. Bathen’s reporting shows. Too many structural incentives are still in place that force police to handle the mentally ill after they’ve reached a crisis rather than equipping mental health professionals to work with people in a preventive and holistic way.

I voted last year with my legislative colleagues to encourage all 58 counties to avail themselves of Assisted Outpatient Treatment programs, and I hope Sacramento and Santa Clara counties ultimately agree to implement this program.

This year I have authored three bills to offer more state support for those suffering from mental illness, but also to put in place accountability measures to keep an eye on agencies to ensure they are providing needed services. They are:

SB 21, which would increase funding for public schools’ mental health services financed by purchases of a mental health awareness license plate (you can register your intent to buy the license plate here: https://beingwellca.org/);

SB 749, which would create a comprehensive tracking program for county spending on mental and behavioral health programs and services;

SB 782, which follows on last year’s legislation by allowing individuals exiting conservatorship to be eligible for involuntary Assisted Outpatient Treatment as a bridge to fully independent living.

I hope we can all agree that mental health services are one of California’s most vital needs – especially as we continue to maneuver through the effects of the Pandemic. Solutions are in sight. The State Auditor made that much clear in its scathing report last year. We just need to seize the moment and do the right thing.

Steven Glazer,
State Senator, 7th District (Contra Costa and Alameda counties)

Legacy of a young woman’s murder: Will the counties step up?

Editor’s Note: The death of 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, shot by a gunman with a history of psychiatric problems, inspired a 2002 California law to make it easier for families to get help for a mentally ill relative. The issue is this: Will the counties — including Sacramento and Santa Clara — agree to strengthen the original law? The deadline looms. (Second of two parts. Part I can be viewed here.)Sue Frost, chair of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, did not originally support a 2002 state law that provides family members with one of the few legal avenues to get severely mentally ill relatives into intensive treatment. Like other public officials, she was concerned about patient rights and cost.

But she supports it now.

“There are people in our world who cannot take care of themselves, and they need help,” the former emergency room nurse said in a recent interview with Capitol Weekly. “You can’t exercise your civil rights if you’re seriously mentally ill or in a drug-induced psychosis.”

The original law was strengthened by legislation last year that requires counties to start such programs or publicly provide specific reasons why they are not

Faced with looming state deadlines to adopt “Laura’s Law,” California counties are scrambling to hold required public hearings and report back to the state Department of Health Services by May 2, two months before programs are set to begin July 1.

The 2002 law is named for 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, who was gunned down in 2001 in a Nevada County mental-health clinic by a deranged mental patient whose family had desperately sought treatment for him, but were rebuffed by local mental health officials. Scott Thorpe went on to kill two more people, seriously injuring three, and will likely spend the rest of his life in Napa State Hospital for the criminally insane.

The original law was strengthened by legislation last year that requires counties to start such programs or publicly provide specific reasons why they are not. Previously, counties could quietly decline to adopt Laura’s Law, which most did. Twenty California counties now have such programs and report significant success in reducing hospitalizations, incarceration and homelessness for a small subset of individuals who are resistant to treatment, at huge public and human cost.

Now widely adopted throughout the country, 46 states have Assisted Outpatient Treatment programs (AOT, or Laura’s Law in California).

Counties that fail to “opt out” of Laura’s Law will automatically be required  to start AOT programs. Most of California’s larger counties now have such programs, accounting for an estimated 65-to-70 percent of the state’s population.

The two remaining major holdouts, Sacramento and Santa Clara, are each surrounded by counties with successful Laura’s Law programs. With state deadlines approaching, debate in both counties is intensifying, and advocates complain that requirements for a full airing of public comment have been stifled by county mental health officials long resistant to AOT programs.

While many legislators opposed the original law because of concerns about involuntary treatment, opposition has waned as the law demonstrated significant success

Although Santa Clara County officials appear to be well on the way to a final decision next month, Sacramento County recently requested – and was granted — an extension until the statutory deadline of July 1. The 2020 law , by then state Assemblywoman (now state Sen.) Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, was passed unanimously by the state Legislature and took effect Jan. 1, but  the author gave the counties six months to prepare and implement programs – or publicly explain why they are not.

Joe Simitian, member, Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors

Two virtual public meetings of the Health and Hospital Committee of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, on Feb. 17 and March 24, included intense public discussion, with considerable public comment, almost entirely in support of Laura’s Law. One of several letters to the committee was signed by San Jose City Councilman Matt Mahan  and 40 other mental health, business and environmental leaders. They noted that other Bay Area counties have had “great success” with AOT, and that San Francisco reported saving more than $400,000 a month in reduced hospitalizations, incarceration and homelessness among clients receiving intensive AOT services.

Clearly dissatisfied with county behavioral health staff recommendations that the Santa Clara board “opt out” of Laura’s Law, committee chair Joe Simitian said at the Feb. 17 meeting that he was “not persuaded” by county recommendations. Both members of the Health and Hospital Committee – Simitian and Supervisor Otto Lee – strongly recommended during the March 24 meeting that the five-member Board of Supervisors adopt Laura’s Law when the full board meets on May 25.

Simitian was a state Assemblyman (and later a state Senator), who voted for Laura’s Law when it was passed in 2002. It had no funding and included a five-year “sunset” provision that has been repeatedly renewed. The law was finally made permanent in last year’s legislation.

The mental health court judges in the criminal courts are among the strongest supporters of Laura’s Law.

While many legislators opposed the original law because of concerns about involuntary treatment, opposition has waned as the law demonstrated significant success, and compliance was mostly voluntary in a civil court process that aimed to keep people out of prisons and jails ill-equipped to house, much less help, them.  California jails and prisons are often described as “the new asylums” because of the large number of inmates  (as many as half) who are mentally ill.

“Because we have other large counties with programs, we now have some experience,” said Simitian in an interview with Capitol Weekly, “and the experience in other counties is encouraging. It’s very clear to me that there is a need that our current programs do not address.”

Judges support ‘Laura’s Law’
Ironically, while the two county governments – mainly the Behavioral Health departments in both counties – have resisted adopting Laura’s Law, both counties operate highly regarded Mental Health Courts, which seek to divert mentally ill defendants from jail into treatment, but only after they’ve been arrested for crimes.

The mental health court judges in the criminal courts are among the strongest supporters of Laura’s Law, a civil court process designed to intervene before individuals — whose crimes are a result of their mental illness and/or “self-medicating” with illegal street drugs — become ensnared in the criminal justice system. AB 1976 also adds judges to the list of individuals who can make referrals, and creates a mechanism for several counties to collaborate on Laura’s Law programs.

“There is very little a judge is specifically able to do under the law, other than lend our black robe (often called the ‘black robe effect’) to the treatment effort.” — Lawrence Brown

In a strongly worded letter of support for AB 1976 last year, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown,  a former prosecutor who has long presided over Sacramento’s Mental Health Court, said the new law “will shift the burden in the debate to squarely where it belongs, namely on those seeking to prevent its implementation.”

Brown talks openly about his own family’s experiences with his schizophrenic sister. He attributes county resistance to Laura’s Law to  “misunderstanding or unfounded fears,” and said Sacramento County’s “failure to enact AOT has not been for want of trying, by NAMI (the influential National Alliance on Mental Illness) and many families with loved ones suffering from serious mental illness.”

In several interviews with Capitol Weekly, Brown said a judge’s role in Laura’s Law is generally minimal,  since most cases are voluntary. “There is very little a judge is specifically able to do under the law, other than lend our black robe (often called the “black robe effect”) to the treatment effort,” he said. “It gives families an opportunity to have their loved one connected to treatment, even if they are initially resistant.

“It is lost on me how anyone could be opposed to that.”

Other judges in the mental health court system strongly support AOT as another “tool” in efforts to reduce the increased incarceration of people, often for petty or drug-related crimes, whose mental illness is the root cause of their criminal behavior. “We have this huge gap,” says Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, who is frequently described as creating “the gold standard” in mental health courts. “Why should people have to commit a crime to get treatment?”

Nevada County, where Laura Wilcox was killed, became the first Laura’s Law county in California in 2008, six years after the law was passed.

County behavioral health directors point to other mental-health programs as doing the work of AOT, but Laura’s Law advocates say those programs, while important, lack the judicial component of Laura’s Law — with limited judicial intervention.

Santa Clara County has numerous, well-funded mental-health programs, which Manley praises, and regularly works with in his court. But he says Laura’s Law “provides for more intense treatment for those who cannot or will not participate in treatment, or think there isn’t really anything wrong with them.” While they are a small percentage of the mentally ill population, Manley added, “they cost society so much money – in arrests, hospitalizations.”

Nevada County, where Laura Wilcox was killed, became the first Laura’s Law county in California in 2008, six years after the law was passed. Nevada County Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson, a former public defender who represented Laura’s killer, Scott Thorpe, now presides over the county’s Mental Health Court and has actively advocated for Laura’s  Law (as did his former client’s family, an unusual alliance between the families of the victim and her killer, which Anderson helped to facilitate).

Laura Wilcox in her high school yearbook. (Family photo)

“The statistics are very clear,” he said. “You save more money than you spend because AOT is effective in reducing the costs of hospitalization, which are enormous, as well as police costs, not to mention the human effects on a person’s family and neighbors.” He is blunt in his criticism of county governments that oppose Laura’s Law, attributing their reluctance to “bureaucratic stubbornness.”

“It’s mystifying that they would not adopt a program that has been proven to be very effective and saves money. What other programs can you say that about?”

Counties cite controversy, start-up costs
Dr. Ryan Quist, a psychologist who is director of the Sacramento County Behavioral Health Department, declined to be interviewed for this article, citing “the long history and complexity of this subject.”

He responded to questions instead in a lengthy email that emphasized the “passionate advocates both for and against AOT” – ostensibly pitting family members against “consumers of services” who oppose involuntary treatment (which some do, but certainly not all). “Sacramento County staff are having discussions with advocates on both sides. . .in determining how to move forward.”

Like officials in other counties, Quist also pointed to existing programs that are “as effective” as AOT in providing “intensive case management.” One program cited by Quist and other Sacramento County mental health officials is CARE-Plus (Community Alternatives for Recovery and Engagement-Plus), which is for clients who are in conservatorships, one of the most restrictive categories under Lanterman-Petris-Short, the largely unchanged 1967 law that has governed state mental health policy for decades. Conservatorships are rare, legally difficult to obtain, and generally not part of Laura’s Law programs.

“It’s constantly puzzling to me that Sacramento County is so stuck in opposition when there is so much support for the efficacy of [AOT]. It’s really disheartening.” — Carol Stanchfield

Funding is also an issue for the counties, although AOT supporters say most programs are funded through Medi-Cal and the state Mental Health Services Act, passed as Proposition 63 in 2004. “The people who this would serve already qualify for services,” says Carol Stanchfield, who has long directed Nevada County’s AOT programs, and provides training for other counties starting such programs. “There are other sources [of funding]. They can’t lean on those excuses anymore.

“It’s constantly puzzling to me that Sacramento County is so stuck in opposition when there is so much support for the efficacy of [AOT]. It’s really disheartening.”

Laura’s Law requires that county programs not reduce other services in order to start AOT programs, but county officials argue there are start-up costs for any new program. And Quist said in his email that counties may see “dramatic cuts” in MHSA funding as a result of the economic impact from the pandemic – a contention disputed by Laura’s Law supporters.

While Sacramento County behavioral health officials have not yet made a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, Laura’s Law supporters are cautiously optimistic about the board’s ultimate action, as are supporters in Santa Clara County about the vote there.

Like many public officials with long history in the Laura’s Law debates, who originally opposed the law at the county level, Sacramento board chair Frost now  supports it, and she has advocated with other board members and county officials for action to establish AOT programs in the county.

Frustrated by the county’s staff response to the new law, she wrote a strongly worded letter to Behavioral Health Director Quist on March 18, just days after two Behavioral Health department public hearings which gave short shrift to public comment and generated widespread outrage from the many advocates who had signed up to comment, ask questions.

Quist responded in a March 25 letter describing the county’s public outreach, and noted that in community responses to an online survey (172 responses by March 22), 74 percent favored opting in to an AOT program, 11 percent were opposed, and 15 percent “neutral or unsure.” He said more than 180 people registered for the March 15  and 16 hearings. Frost also requested “further public outreach” from county mental health officials, who have since scheduled another “virtual forum” on April 19 for public comment, before the issue goes to the full board.

“It is disappointing to see that these discussions have not been conducted in a way that is conducive to actual discussion,” Frost, who attended one of the virtual hearings last month, wrote in her two-page letter. “AOT was not explained, questions from the public were not addressed, the meetings were less than 30 minutes long (while being advertised for a full hour), and…were not recorded for later viewing.

“I was counting on being able to utilize these public hearings to help me come to a better understanding of AOT and my eventual position on it, but was left with nothing of value as a result. . .It is rare that a program has so much support that it receives unanimous support in the Legislature, but that is what happened with AB 1976, and I do not wish to see Sacramento County take it lightly. At this point, public perception is that we are not interested in actually considering adopting AOT. I hope that is not the case.”

Editor’s Note: Sigrid Bathen is a Sacramento journalist and former Sacramento Bee reporter who taught journalism at Sacramento State for 32 years. She has long covered mental-health issues, for several publications, and her writing has won numerous awards. She has covered health care, education and state government for Capitol Weekly since 2005. Her web site is www.sigridbathen.com. She can be reached at sigridbathen@gmail.com

For the mentally ill, a life-and-death debate over Laura’s Law

Editor’s note: A new California law pressures more counties to adopt mental-health programs to reduce hospitalizations, homelessness and incarceration — and save money. (First of two parts. Part 2 can be viewed here.)

When Kaino Hopper’s 31-year-old daughter Christine adamantly refused – as she often has — the mental health treatment she so desperately needs, it was a rainy, blustery January day in Sacramento, and she was homeless, sleeping in fields and suburban parks. Her mother had few choices, and contacted her daughter’s caseworker for help.

But Christine again declined treatment or housing – although she accepted her mother’s offer of food, a sleeping bag and tarp. She could no longer live at home because of her combative, sometimes violent and assaultive, behavior.  A client then of Telecare, a mental health and recovery program with services in multiple counties and several states, she has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a complex combination of symptoms characterized by delusions, hallucinations, depression and wild mood swings.


All are treatable with medication and therapy, and Hopper says Christine has enjoyed periods of stability when she accepts treatment.

Like many mental-health diagnoses, hers include a combination of psychiatric and neurologic conditions that began to surface in her early teens, but were not fully diagnosed until she was 18. The youngest of three children, she receives federal disability payments and has lived independently for short periods, but mostly with her parents through much of her young adulthood. Her mother says she was recently dropped as a Telecare client because she was not responding to offers of help.

“Families are too often the designated caregivers,” Hopper, 64, says bitterly of California’s broken system of mental health care. “Yet we get very little acknowledgement or support.”

Kaino Hopper’s daughter, Christine, 5th grade.(Photo: Hopper family)

Her daughter was diagnosed with ADHD in high school, and with a type of neurological epilepsy, characterized by a “dream-like” state, rather than classic epileptic seizures. “She would just stare into space,” Hopper recalls. “I thought I just had a dreamy kid.”  Her daughter had below-average grades in elementary school, but thrived in an Independent Study program in middle school, and was placed in Advanced Placement classes in high school, graduating with honors and a 4.3 GPA.

An active volunteer with the Sacramento chapter of the influential National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI),  Kaino Hopper coordinates family support groups and advocates for changes in mental health laws. She is in the forefront of current local and state efforts to convince recalcitrant California counties – including Sacramento – to “opt in” to the recently strengthened “Laura’s Law.”  The statute provides for court-ordered, intensive treatment programs aimed at a small population of treatment-resistant mentally ill people, like her daughter, who comprise an outsized number of repeat hospitalizations, incarceration, homelessness and deaths.

If Sacramento County had such a “Laura’s Law” program, as 20 California counties do, Hopper is convinced Christine would get the help she needs.

“Other county programs don’t work for her. She has zero insight into her condition. She forgets how she gets better with treatment, but she cannot get treatment in Sacramento County without going to jail,” said Hopper, a textile artist  who has been published and exhibited internationally and served as a guest lecturer in design at UC-Davis and other area colleges. Focused professionally – and personally — on making life easier for the disabled, her Master’s project at UCD was on simplifying fashion design for women with disabilities.

Christine Hopper at her 8th birthday party, with her pet cockatiel perched on her shoulder. (Photo: Hopper family)

Like so many parents of mentally ill adult children, Hopper has had little time for her design work in recent years, as her daughter’s condition deteriorated.  She was hospitalized in psychiatric facilities six times during the first eight months of 2020 — never longer than 14 days under California’s outdated and highly restrictive Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) law, which has been largely unchanged since it was passed as a sweeping “reform” measure in 1967. She had four failed “room and board” placements, usually private residences with rooms to rent, where she either left, was evicted or denied housing because she refused to take a COVID test.

So, on Jan. 5, Hopper and the Telecare caseworker, a licensed clinical social worker, took the only path available to the families of severely mentally ill relatives in most California counties. They called 911, asking that she be detained on a 72-hour involuntary “hold” under LPS, which places strict limits on involuntary treatment and offers few if any alternatives. But the law enforcement officers who respond to such calls make the ultimate decision under the law, often regardless of recommendations by mental health professionals, and Hopper said they decided she “didn’t meet the criteria” to be taken to a hospital on a “5150,” the state code section governing involuntary holds for those deemed a danger to themselves or others.

“There is this terrible disconnect between what the mental-health professionals recommend, and what actually happens. [The officers] told me she knows her name, she has a sleeping bag, she’s eaten, and she’s not comatose,” recalls Hopper, who followed up with repeated calls and emails to Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department supervisors. “They said I should get a restraining order, so then she could be arrested.”

Lisa Dailey, an attorney who heads the national, Washington, D.C.-based Treatment Advocacy Center — and whose sister’s mental illness propelled her into mental-health law and advocacy — says family members “are entirely shut out of the system. A police officer who comes to the scene has no experience with this person, gets only a snapshot view.”

Christine Hopper in a photograph taken last year in Sacramento. (Photo: Hopper family)

From the streets to jail – and back again
Dailey says Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT, or Laura’s Law in California) services are  “misunderstood” by local and state behavioral health officials, who are often opposed to such programs because of funding issues and patients’ rights concerns.  “The services that are incorporated into an AOT plan already exist in many counties,” she says. “The difference is the court order. There is a real stubbornness to even try the program, despite its proven success.”

Multiple state and national studies of AOT programs indicate significant success in reducing hospitalizations, incarceration and homelessness among clients of local programs, but data collection is limited and inconsistent. In a scathing report on state mental health care last year by state Auditor Elaine Howle, she was particularly critical of poor or nonexistent follow-up and data collection for the thousands of people who are “processed” through a haphazard system of care.

In its most recent report last year, covering 10 county programs in 2018-19, the state Department of Health Care Services, which is required to issue regular reports on Laura’s Law programs (as are the counties, although many reportedly fail to provide data, with limited state sanctions), found significant reductions in homelessness, incarceration, hospitalization – including a 90 percent reduction in mentally ill clients becoming victims of crimes. The report also noted a 29 percent reduction in hospitalizations and 56 percent “fully engaged” in services, usually voluntarily, without the need for judicial intervention.

And AOT programs are widely known to save public funds, since those most in need of services are also the people who are repeatedly hospitalized, incarcerated and homeless.

Criminalizing the mentally ill is a tragic result of a state mental health system that lacks residential treatment facilities or adequate housing, and strictly limits involuntary treatment. It is a decades-old reaction to the forced detention and abuse of thousands of mentally ill residents in state mental hospitals, which were largely closed in the 1970s, leaving only a few facilities for those deemed criminally insane by the courts.

The “community care” touted as a replacement for the hospitals was largely nonexistent, leaving mentally ill Californians wandering the streets, cycling through hospital ER’s and jails, at huge public and human cost, exponentially worsened during the pandemic.

For nearly two decades,  Laura’s Law has been one of the few legal avenues available to families of severely mentally ill relatives — a non-criminal, civil court process designed to get family members into intensive treatment. While surrounded by counties with successful Laura’s Law programs, Sacramento County has steadfastly refused to adopt AOT, one of only two large California counties – the other is Santa Clara — without a Laura’s Law program.

Christine Hopper sleeping in a park in January. (Photo: Hopper family)

Now estimated to cover 65-to-70 percent of California’s population in 20 counties, the 2002 law is named for Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old college student and high school valedictorian, who was killed in 2001 by a deranged mental patient in a Nevada County mental health clinic where she worked.

Although her killer’s family had been trying for weeks to warn local mental-health authorities about his alarming mental decline, the family (including a brother who was a Sacramento police sergeant) was ignored, and Scott Thorpe went on to kill two more in that rampage, seriously injuring three. In a lengthy, expensive court process, he ultimately pleaded Not Guilty by reason of Insanity, and will likely spend the rest of his life in Napa State Hospital for the criminally insane.

Amanda and Nick Wilcox, Laura’s parents, channeled their grief into changing the law, testifying in California and throughout the country for measures to reform mental health and gun laws. Nearly 20 years later, they say they are finally seeing real results, and were honored last year for their work in a California State Assembly ceremony.

They plan to retire this summer, moving to Colorado to be near their two sons. “It’s been a long struggle,” Nick Wilcox said in a recent Capitol Weekly interview about the law that bears their daughter’s name. “The way it’s set up, every county is on its own, so there has to be advocacy, holding [county officials] accountable, holding their feet to the fire.”

The original Laura’s Law, by then-state Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, a former psychiatric nurse and Yolo County Supervisor, is based on New York’s “Kendra’s Law,” named for a young woman pushed from a subway platform into the path of a moving train by a mental patient with more than a dozen previous psychiatric hospitalizations, one just six weeks before 32-year-old Kendra Webdale, a journalist from Buffalo, was killed in 1999. Forty-six states now have some form of AOT.

Intense debate in counties lacking ‘Laura’s Law’
Until this year, California counties could choose to quietly “opt out” of Laura’s Law, with limited or no public notice. Those counties that chose to “opt in” have shown significant cost savings and reductions in hospitalizations, incarceration and homelessness for a small subset of severely mentally ill people who refuse treatment. Many don’t acknowledge they are sick – a condition called anosognosia – and often “self-medicate” with street drugs.

But with the unanimous passage last year of AB 1976, by then-Assemblywoman (now state Senator) Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, a former social worker and Sacramento State University social work professor, the law was considerably strengthened and finally made permanent, eliminating a “sunset” provision that required hearings every five years.

Counties can no longer “opt out” without providing specific reasons to the state Department of Health Care Services, which oversees Laura’s Law compliance in the counties. Perhaps most important, under the new law, county Behavioral Health Departments and Boards of Supervisors must hold public hearings.

With a May 2 deadline for submission of AOT plans to the state – or county board resolutions to “opt out” – counties throughout California are debating whether to adopt Laura’s Law. Nowhere is that debate more intense than in Sacramento and Santa Clara counties, where county officials and mental health advocates are speaking out in myriad, often heated public discussions that began in February, intensifying in March and April.

All of the public debate is virtual during COVID, and AOT supporters say much of it is controlled by county behavioral health officials long opposed to Laura’s Law. They complain that “public-input” hearings have been perfunctory and limited, with lengthy presentations, mainly on programs other than AOT, by local mental-health officials. Depending on the format in each county, public comments and questions have often been relegated to virtual, small-group “brainstorming” sessions and written submissions or completion of an online survey.

In two recent Sacramento County “community input” Zoom sessions on March 15 and 16, each one-hour hearing ended abruptly after 30 minutes, following brief presentations by county behavioral health officials, who provided short answers to a small number of questions posed by only a few of the many citizens who had signed up to participate (according to the county, 180 people signed up for the March 15 and 16 hearings).

At the end of each hearing, a link was provided to a survey in which to submit comments, and survey links were also sent by email, with 172 responses by March 22 — 74 percent supporting creation of an AOT program. County mental-health officials are reportedly planning another “public forum” in the coming weeks as a result of complaints from advocates and at least one county supervisor.

“Nearly 100 people participated [in the March 16 meeting], yet only a few questions were responded to,” said Carol Stanchfield, who has long directed California’s first Laura’s Law program, in Nevada County, under a contract with Turning Point Community Programs, a highly regarded nonprofit. “I asked multiple questions, but none were addressed.” She said the lack of public input prompts “many people to believe that Sacramento County Behavioral Health lacks the intent, or the will, to objectively consider AOT.”

Stanchfield’s objections mirrored many who signed up to testify and were troubled by the local limitations on a public-hearing process required by the new law. “There must be meaningful opportunity” for public comment under AB 1976, said Randall Hagar, longtime legislative advocate for the California Psychiatric Association, which sponsored the measure. While a “specific procedure” for public comment is not described in the law, he said many of the county hearings “clearly violate the spirit of the law. It’s supposed to be a robust public discussion, and this is turning out to be anything but.”

Next: Dispute intensifies over new Laura’s Law requirements as state deadlines loom. Click here for Part 2.

 Editor’s Note: Corrects spelling to Christine sted Christina throughout. Sigrid Bathen is a Sacramento journalist and former Sacramento Bee reporter who taught journalism at Sacramento State for 32 years. She has long covered mental-health issues for several publications, and her writing has won numerous awards. She has covered health care, education and state government for Capitol Weekly since 2005. Her web site is www.sigridbathen.com. She can be reached at sigridbathen@gmail.com.

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