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After slow start, Kern County says reimagined court-ordered mental health treatment program shows promise

Kern BHRS

The Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services building at 2001 28th St.

For years, Sarah Dessy resisted treatment for the “serious brain disorders” that sometimes resulted in the voices inside her head telling her to kill herself.

First diagnosed with major depression and obsessive compulsive disorder in second grade, her psychosis worsened in her last year at Cal State Northridge, when police evacuated her dorm as she waved a knife around.

“I was hearing voices, and they were threatening me and scaring me so I was trying to defend myself,” she said in a phone interview. “I could have easily gotten shot by the cops. It could have been much worse.”

Diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, Dessy fought against her family’s attempts to get her into treatment because she says she was afraid it would impact her methamphetamine use, which she now recognizes contributed to her deteriorating mental condition.

She says she was involuntarily committed more than 50 times to psychiatric treatment, and in one tense exchange, was pepper sprayed and manhandled by the police after her family called 911 to attempt to get her into the hospital. But the involuntary stays never lasted long, and the treatment didn’t stick.

Dessy’s experience led her mother, Fawn Kennedy Dessy, to urge the Kern County Board of Supervisors in 2016 to implement “Laura’s Law,” which authorizes court-ordered treatment for individuals with serious mental health disorders. Supervisors passed the law, but Kern County Behavioral Health Services was slow to implement it, and little changed.

Now, a legislative change is requiring counties across California to choose to opt in or out of Laura’s Law, and Kern County says it has reimagined its program, greatly expanding the number of individuals participating. As the state Legislature also considers expanding the criteria under which someone could be eligible for Laura’s Law, Kern County officials hope the local Laura’s Law program will continue to grow.

Help for those who don’t want it

Laura’s Law is named after Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old college sophomore who was shot while working as a receptionist at Nevada County’s mental health clinic while on winter break. The man who shot her had long resisted treatment for his delusions and paranoia.

Passed in 2002, the measure allows a judge to order assisted outpatient treatment to individuals who, among other criteria, have a history of noncompliance and are unlikely to survive in the community without supervision.

Laura’s Law only applies to counties that have opted in, and in 2016, Kern County was one of the first in the state to do so. Still, three years after it was authorized, nobody in Kern had been ordered to undergo the treatment.

“We didn’t know that there was anything wrong because there was nobody to compare ourselves to,” said Behavioral Health Deputy Director Alison Burrowes. “It really took some time for more people to get on board, to kind of realize, wait a minute, the status quo is not good enough, let’s find out what’s going on here.”

The reevaluation process began in 2019, and it involved Behavioral Health inviting officials from Nevada County to Kern County to learn from people who had successfully implemented Laura’s Law.

“We really reeducated our whole county, from the public defender to the judges,” Burrowes said. “We saw a huge shift and I’m just really proud of the work that we’ve done since.”

Since the redo, Behavioral Health says it has experienced noticeable improvements. The number of referrals for Laura’s Law increased from 45 in the 2018-19 fiscal year to 145 the next. The county says “appropriate referrals” also increased from 50 percent to 70 percent.

From July through March, of the 35 appropriate Laura’s Law referrals, 23 people engaged in outpatient services voluntarily. Eight individuals have successfully undergone court-ordered treatment.

Now, “we’re getting counties reaching out to us," Burrowes said. “We’re able to provide what Nevada County did for us.”

To opt in or out

Not all counties have embraced Laura’s Law. Only 23 counties have opted in so far. The remaining have until July 1 to decide before a state deadline passes.

Recently, Monterey County supervisors voted to opt out after concerns were raised over the impact to the county budget. Some critics have brought up issues regarding civil liberties and the risks of mandating treatment for those claiming they do not need it.

When Kern County Supervisors approved Laura’s Law in 2016, they acknowledged court-ordered treatment was a difficult step to take. However, they acknowledged the law could help families struggling to find options for members who struggled with mental health disorders.

For Deborah Fabos, whose son struggles with psychosis, Laura’s Law is a crucial option for families.

“(Psychosis) sets in late. It’s triggered in the prime. You’re just ready to springboard into life and it cuts you down. That makes it really hard for family members if they don’t understand how to deal with it,” she said. “Isn’t it just logical that this population with the most severe symptoms would require immediate access to treatment and require a high level of support to heal the brain?”

Healing

At 39, Dessy now works part time at the clinic in which she was treated, along with a part-time gig assisting her mother’s legal practice.

“We never expected that she would live this long,” her mother, Fawn Kennedy Dessy said, adding the treatment was only possible because she advocated strongly on behalf of her daughter.

But now that her family has gotten through the worst of their struggles, Dessy has continued to advocate for Laura’s Law and has pushed the county to implement it more fully.

"Continuing treatment and wrap around services are essential," she said. "Most people don’t do what I did. They don't have the wherewithal to go down there and raise hell."

Sarah now feels grateful for the changed legal environment.

“It helps me feel secure knowing that Laura’s Law is something that this community supports,” she said. “If I mess up and go back into my addiction, I know that there’s help for me from the community because the community can help get me back into treatment.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.