Health & Human Services

New San Francisco Law Allows Forced Treatment of Mentally Ill

by | July 9, 2014

By Marisa Lagos

After years of debate, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors overwhelmingly voted in favor Tuesday of implementing Laura's Law, the state measure that allows mentally ill people to be compelled into treatment by a court.

The 9-2 vote wasn't a surprise, however: In May, Supervisor Mark Farrell announced he would move forward with implementing the law here, either by taking it to the ballot or, if he could get the votes, at the Board of Supervisors.

Last month, Farrell all but guaranteed a legislative win when he secured the support of progressive Supervisor David Campos by agreeing to amend the law to include creation of an oversight team that will try to get mentally ill people to accept voluntary treatment first.

"Recent studies and reports show that over 40 million American adults have mental illnesses," Farrell said. "People are falling through the cracks ... right here in San Francisco. We see it on the streets, in the community and in families every single day."

Named for 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, who was killed by a psychiatric patient 13 years ago, the state law was passed in 2002. But counties have been slow to opt in -- and perhaps nowhere has the law been met with more vociferous resistance than in San Francisco, which has struggled for years to deal with its mentally ill population.

Campos compromises

Some mental health advocates have continued to fight the measure, but Campos said Tuesday that he chose to support Farrell's proposal because he did not want the issue to be decided at the ballot box. If Laura's Law was implemented by voters, it could only be changed by another popular vote.

Still, Supervisor Eric Mar, who voted against the measure along with Supervisor John Avalos, said he is worried the law could further stigmatize the mentally ill and may not offer people of different ethnic backgrounds "culturally competent" care.

Supervisor Jane Kim said she would have liked to see a pilot program instituted instead of permanent approval. The board instead accepted an amendment proposed by Kim that requires an outside group to conduct an assessment of Laura's Law after three years. She ultimately voted for the law.

Relieves stressed agencies

Farrell said the law will give the city another tool for dealing with mentally ill residents and, it is hoped, help take some stress off the city's public safety and emergency management departments. He said 44 states have similar laws.

"For me, Laura's Law is about helping vulnerable individuals ... get help they need," he said. "Those in need deserve better and their families deserve better."

At a particularly busy meeting, the board also voted unanimously to place a $500 million transportation bond on the November ballot, which will fund transportation infrastructure projects.

$10 billion needed

The city's streets and transit system need an estimated $10 billion investment in the coming 15 years. The bond will help chip away at those needs, paying for new and redesigned streets and sidewalks, as well as infrastructure improvements and repairs to Muni.

Mar, who represents the Richmond District, said the measure, if approved by voters, will improve public transit in San Francisco. He said the money will be spent equitably throughout the city.

"For us on the west side and in the southern neighborhoods ... I think there's a need for much more efficient transportation that serves the outer edges of the city, not just the inner core," he said.

Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Sunset District, also praised the measure as an investment that will "serve not only us but generations to come."

More affordable housing

Supervisors additionally approved a measure by Supervisor Scott Wiener that he said will encourage developers to include more affordable housing units in their market-rate developments by allowing them to increase the density of a proposed housing project if 20 percent of the new units are earmarked as affordable.

Before the meeting, dozens of workers from nonprofits that the city pays to provide social services marched around City Hall and flooded the board chamber, demanding a pay raise. The workers -- who serve tens of thousands of low-income, mentally ill, elderly and other vulnerable residents -- are lobbying the board to open up the city budget next week and increase the amount of money provided to these nonprofits.

Mayor Ed Lee included a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase in both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 budgets, but workers say they previously went years without a raise and want the board to add another 1.5 percent, or about $6.8 million for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Their protest delayed the start of the board meeting for about 20 minutes and resulted in 11 people being detained for disruption of a public meeting, said sheriff's Chief Deputy Kathy Gorwood. No one was arrested.

(c)2014 the San Francisco Chronicle

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