Make Kendra’s Law permanent and improve it

DJ Jaffe
Ganette Papers Lower Hudson


There’s a program in New York that helps the mentally ill lead better lives, keeps the public safer and saves money. The problem is, it ends in June and the New York State Office of Mental Health doesn’t want it to become permanent. Families of the mentally ill are outraged. So are law enforcement officials. Fortunately, state Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, has proposed a bill to overrule OMH and make the law permanent.

Assisted outpatient treatment, known to the public as Kendra’s Law, was designed to help seriously mentally ill individuals who are so sick, they don’t know they’re sick. As a result, individuals with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often refuse treatment and needlessly deteriorate. Many of us have seen the mentally ill homeless, eating out of garbage cans and screaming at voices only they can hear. Before Kendra’s Law, families had to wait until after their loved ones became a danger to themselves or others before treatment could be mandated. That was cruel. Laws should prevent violence, not require it.

Kendra’s Law works by giving courts the authority to order seriously mentally ill people who have a past history of violence or recidivism to accept treatment without ordering them to be inpatient committed. The court-ordered treatments, usually including violence-preventing and sanity-inducing medications, are received in the community. Simultaneously with ordering the patients to accept treatment, the courts order the mental health system to provide treatment, including a case manager to monitor compliance. Patients are given extensive due process protections and the ability to help develop their own treatment plan. Mandating the mental health system provide services is a huge advance, since treating the most seriously ill is not a responsibility they accept willingly. Often one’s ability to receive mental health services in New York is inversely related to need. Many mental health programs prefer accepting the worried well to the seriously ill.

When Kendra’s Law originally passed in 2000, it was with a five-year sunset, because naysayers said it would never work. The five-year trial gave time for the law to be studied and when the study  commissioned by the state Legislature was released, it proved the anti-treatment advocates wrong. The study found Kendra’s Law:

• Keeps the public safer by reducing physical harm to others (47 percent) and property destruction (43 percent).

• Helps the mentally ill by reducing homelessness (74 percent), suicide attempts (55 percent) and substance abuse (48 percent).

• Saves money by reducing hospitalizations (77 percent),

arrests (83 percent) and incarceration (87 percent).

When the law was set to be made permanent in 2005, naysayers pooh-poohed the research and again came up with new concerns. Again, the research showed Kendra’s Law works. In fact, it showed that those who experienced Kendra’s Law — and who would be expected to be its most vociferous opponents — in fact liked the treatment.

Yet OMH still refuses to make Kendra’s Law permanent or to incorporate results of the research suggesting ways to improve it. Instead, they introduced bills to extend the sunset a little and kill it in 2015. It’s the “I was for it before I was against it” strategy all over again.

Assemblywoman Gunther and Republican State Sen. Catharine Young of Olean have put politics aside and proposed a bipartisan bill to make Kendra’s Law permanent, and incorporate the fruits of the research in ways that improve the bill and save money. Not surprisingly, making Kendra’s Law permanent is supported by advocates for the mentally ill like the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York state and Rockland. But it is also supported by public safety officials like the Westchester County Chiefs of Police Association, the District Attorneys Association of New York and others. They recognize that helping the mentally ill can reduce the numbers arrested and incarcerated, protect their officers and keep the public safer.

Hopefully our leaders in Albany will recognize the same thing.

The writer is an advocate for the seriously mentally ill in New York City.

As published May 5, 2010

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.