Make Kendra’s Law permanent

Buffalo News

March 17, 2010 (updated August 21, 2010)

Kendra’s Law—designed to keep people who really need it on their violence-prevention medication—was passed about 10 years ago. It’s up for renewal, again. Just make it permanent.

The law has proven itself. When it was first proposed, in response to the death of a young Western New York woman pushed to her death in front of a New York City subway train, it drew support from this page despite concerns about possible coercion of the mentally ill. But in the decade since it was passed in 1999, a decade during which it passed one five-year renewal, the system of court orders with safeguards has worked—and, more importantly, the law has proven effective.

The law allows judges to order certain mentally ill people to remain on violence-prevention medication as a condition of release and, if that doesn’t work, to order involuntary committal to mental hospitals if shown to be a danger to themselves or others. The orders stem from a request by close family members or care providers and need a psychiatrist’s approval, and the hospitalization is only long enough to re-establish medication.

It was a difficult call for many to make at the time, but it’s becoming easier to endorse once again as time has proven the benefits of the law to the families of those mentally ill individuals who cannot recognize their need for medication, and to the communities in which they live. Erie County continues to use the law effectively, and to outpace other communities with the number of people voluntarily entering the program or doing so by court order.

The State Legislature, which chose in 2005 to renew the law instead of make it permanent, should go a step further and make the law permanent. The information sought at the inception of the program and at its renewal have been answered adequately. But in any case, the law should not be allowed to expire—another long renewal is the only acceptable alternative to a non-sunsetted law that could, after all, be repealed or amended if a flaw, rather than a special-interest objection, somehow turns up this late in its track record.

New York State Commissioner of Mental Health Michael Hogan is on record in support of the law, but has reduced the number of people entering the program.

One mother who supports Kendra’s Law recently gave a detailed heart-wrenching description of what it had been like to go through the mental health system maze in a struggle to get help for a son who seemed on the brink. Her relief in the service eventually provided as a consequence of the legislation was plain, and so was her concern that the legal safeguards keeping her son stable would soon disappear.

But perhaps there’s no stronger advocate for the legislation than Pat Webdale of Fredonia, mother of Kendra Webdale, who was pushed to her death by Andrew Goldstein, a man with a history of mental illness and hospitalizations. Pat Webdale, has worked tirelessly over the years to make sure courts can order someone with a severe psychiatric disorder, and a recent history of hospitalization or violence, into what is known as an assertive community treatment program or assisted outpatient treatment.

By all accounts, the numbers of mentally ill individuals being left homeless, attempting suicide and falling into substance abuse has decreased. That also seems true for related arrests and destruction of property.

This law continues to protect individuals and communities, help get treatment for those who need it and bring some peace of mind to families who might otherwise be at a loss to ensure a mentally ill loved one was being kept safe. Why should the Legislature hesitate to make permanent this important legislation?

DJ Jaffe is Executive Director of the non-partisan Mental Illness Policy Org., and author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill. He is a critic of the mental health industry for ignoring the seriously ill, and has been advocating for better treatment for individuals with serious mental illness for over 30 years. He has written op-eds on the intersection of mental health and criminal justice policy for the New York Times, Wall St. Journal and the Washington Post. New York Magazine has credited him with being the driving force behind the passage of New York’s Kendra’s Law and Congress incorporated ideas proposed by DJ in the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.