Quickly, following a press conference for those advocating its adoption as a permanent law, the state Assembly approved Tuesday evening a second five-year extension for Kendra's Law.
The law, named for Kendra Webdale, a 32-year-old Fredonia native who in 1999 was pushed in front of a subway train by a man with untreated schizophrenia who was roaming New York City streets, established "Assisted Outpatient Treatment" (AOT) in New York, allowing courts to order severely mentally ill outpatients to comply with treatment, while ordering counties to provide such treatment and monitor compliance. The law is set to expire on June 30, 2010.
Pat Webdale, Kendra's mother, said while disappointed in the assembly for not making it permanent, she is counting on the senate to approve the law permanently, and in that case, have it come to the assembly for vote again. Pat, along with representatives in favor of making the law permanent, held a press conference Tuesday in Albany.
"There was no debate on the floor," according to Assemblyman Bill Parment, "but the debate and the discussion took place among members in the Mental Health Committee."
Parment, who serves on the Mental Health Committee, said a good number of members were hoping to make the law permanent. However, a lessened amount of controversy still remains and kept the committee from making a recommendation to make the law permanent.
"There is still opposition to the law, which is frustrating to the supporters. We wind up with a compromise of extending the law for five years rather than making it permanent," he said. "I personally would like to see the law permanent, and then once it is, we could then modify the law so that it works better."
While happy with the extension, state Sen. Cathy Young said she will continue to fight for permanent implementation of the law, before the June 30 deadline.
"I'm happy the five-year extender was passed in the Assembly because we don't want the law to lapse, but we still are hopeful that Kendra's Law can be made permanent through negotiations between the two houses before the June 30th deadline," she said. "While it is a heavy lift, I'm not giving up yet."
Generally, Parment said, those who oppose the law feel it is an invasion of civil liberties of people who are compelled to treatment. Of course, those who favor the approach, he said, feel treatment for those who need it must be ensured.
"Kendra's Law has been proven to protect the public while getting people with mental illness the treatment they need so they can live in the community," Young said. "It has significantly reduced crime, suicides, and homelessness. It's hard to fathom why anyone would stand in the way of making it a permanent solution. It's common sense and it works. I salute the Webdales for their continued courage and advocacy for people with mental illness. They've transformed many lives in memory of their daughter."
The law, thus far, has worked well, according to Chautauqua County Department of Mental Health Commissioner Patricia Brinkman.
"We have a fairly active response to Kendra's Law. The law requires my office be responsible should an individual meet the criteria," Brinkman said. "We then do what's considered to be an investigation requesting records from law enforcement, from hospitals, from other mental health providers and if that individual meets the criteria, and there's some very stringent criteria laid out with regard to the law, then we will develop a petition to the court."
From what he knew, Parment thought Chautauqua County has not utilized the Kendra's Law provision to any great extent, noting the objective and subjective criteria.
"There are five criteria of the law, with four of them being objective they have to be over 18, have to have prior illness requiring treatment, etcetera," he said. "And there is one that is subjective and that is the individual is a danger to himself or others. Unless the person is barricaded in a house and shooting at police officers it's difficult for anyone to make that judgment."
According to Brinkman, the Chautauqua County Department of Mental Health has used what they call a diversion order with frequent success, before ever reaching the point in which Kendra's Law would have to be invoked.
"We try and do everything we can to avoid going to court if at all possible. Certainly, if we can get the individual to agree to comply with treatment by using what we call a diversion agreement, which basically says that in lieu of going to court the individual agrees to and signs a voluntarily agreement that they will comply with treatment. That is our first preference, and we tend to have greater compliance; it also saves dollars for the taxpayers because going to court is a costly process," she said. "We've been very successful with our diversion orders. If, however, we've attempted that and the individual still we believe is a risk and still meets the criteria then we will pursue a court order."
Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) as defined in Kendra's Law, since 1999, shows 444 individuals have received AOT in Western New York, with 130 currently active and 223 over the past 12 months. Since 1999, Chautauqua County has ordered 10 individuals to receive AOT. Since 1999, 2,580 voluntary agreements have been reached in western New York, with 49 coming from Chautauqua County.
Currently, the county Office of Mental Health has two individuals on court order, five on voluntary agreements and there are three investigations underway. Between July 1, 2009 and the present they have had five individuals on court orders.
The senate will still have to approve the extension and the governor will have to sign off on it as well. Whatever the argument, she said she feels a mechanism needs to be in place to ensure that people get the treatment they need.
"It's hard with something like this because you have consumer rights on one hand, and you have the concern for the community on the other and it's a very difficult balancing act at times," Brinkman said. "It's something that has worked so far and from what I understand, coming from the state level, is the way the law is working now has been beneficial to communities and to consumers so to get consensus around making significant changes to that would have been much more difficult. It was a wise decision to continue with the law as it is."
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