Teresa Aguila, of San Bernardino County Transitional Assistance Department, center, gathers information from Corneliu Ladu, 68, who is experiencing unsheltered homelessness, right, as San Bernardino Mayor Helen Tran, left, looks on during the San Bernardino County’s 2023 Point-in-Time homeless count in downtown San Bernardino on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
San Bernardino County residents with serious mental health problems can now be ordered by the courts to receive treatment.
The county Board of Supervisors voted last week to implement Assembly Bill 1421, also known as Laura’s Law, as part of a series of steps to address homelessness and, in many cases, underlying mental health issues among those without permanent housing.
Signed into law in 2002, AB 1241 requires elected officials to vote to authorize its implementation and certify that services provided by other mental health programs won’t be reduced. Los Angeles County and Orange County implemented the law in 2014, and Riverside County supervisors voted to implement Laura’s Law in May 2021.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to implement the law Tuesday, June 13.
“To know that there is going to be more tools out there available just really makes me very excited,” said Second District Supervisor Jesse Armendarez.
The law enables the court to order adults with severe mental illnesses to receive treatment. In order to qualify for treatment, adults must be unlikely to survive in the community without supervision and have historically refused to comply with treatment. They also must have been hospitalized twice in the past 36 months, received mental health services in jail or prison, or have attempted a serious, violent act within the last 48 months.
After a psychologist evaluates a prospective patient, health officials can then file a petition with the court. The prospective patient has the right to be represented by an attorney.
The law was named after Laura Wilcox, 19, one of three people killed in a 2001 shooting at the Nevada County Department of Behavioral Health in Nevada City, California. Three other people were wounded in the incident. The man who shot Wilcox had resisted family and healthcare worker attempts to get him hospitalized because of his growing signs of dangerous mental illness.
Also on June 13, San Bernardino County supervisors authorized the hiring of an additional 13 staffers for the Department of Behavioral Health, including three clinical therapists, two social workers, two peer and family advocates, a program specialist and a mental health program manager. Five new employees are being added to the public defender’s office, according to the county.
Officials characterized the implementation of Laura’s Law as part of a multi-pronged effort to combat the county’s homelessness crisis.
“Homelessness is, in large part, a mental health problem. This action recognizes that reality and gives law enforcement and the courts new tools and resources to ensure that our chronically homeless get the mental health services they need,” First District Supervisor Paul Cook is quoted as saying in a news release issued by the county after the board’s vote.
According to the release, the Sheriff’s Department reports that the “vast majority” of homeless mentally ill residents resist getting help when contacted by the county’s Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) team.
A 2019 report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said that 25% of the chronically homeless individuals had a permanent or long-term severe mental health condition.
Homelessness in San Bernardino County has jumped 26% in the past year, according to January’s Point in Time Count. According to the county, 4,195 homeless people were identified in January, up 862 from 2022. In April, San Bernardino County supervisors voted to spend $72 million in local, state and federal funds fighting homelessness.