Kendra’s Law loopholes must be closed

Written by Vanessa Bellucci

Published in Journal News May. 20, 2011|
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On Oct. 13, I found both my parents dead inside their New York home. They were stabbed multiple times.

Unlike most people, I didn’t have to wonder who did it. I knew instantly: My brother Eric.

The brother I grew up with was a smart, attractive, well-educated, fun-loving person who had always been my role
model. However, as he reached his mid-20s, we began to realize that he had the misfortune of suffering from schizophrenia.

He had, at one point, received treatment following an involuntary hospital stay but refused to comply with the recommended treatment upon discharge. The person we loved retreated into his psychosis, acting bizarrely and causing our family to walk on eggshells, fearful of his next outburst. Psychotic and delusional, he thought our loving parents became living Satans, conspiring against him and holding him back by standing in the way of his every move and opportunity. That’s what mental illness did to him.

This is the first time I’m writing about what happened. But it is important to do so, to call attention to a bill in Albany that could prevent what happened to me, what happened to my parents and what happened to my brother from happening to others. I want Albany to pass that bill.

It’s called the Kendra’s Law Improvement Act (A6987/S4881) and it was introduced by state Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh. Kendra’s Law was originally passed in 1999 after Andrew Goldstein pushed Kendra Webdale in front of a subway train. Andrew was a lot like my brother. They both had schizophrenia, both did very well when on treatment, both frequently rejected treatment and both were between 29 and 30 years old when they killed. Both had loving families with no ability to ensure they stayed on the medications that could help them get better.

Kendra’s Law allows courts to order them to stay in treatment even if they are not staying in a hospital. If after being court-ordered to accept treatment, they go off it, they can be hospitalized for an evaluation to see if they need inpatient treatment to prevent them from becoming dangerous.

Kendra’s Law was a tremendous advance for people like my brother. It’s only for seriously mentally ill people who have a prior history of violence or multiple re-hospitalizations that could have been prevented had they stayed in treatment.

New York State Office of Mental Health  research shows Kendra’s Law has cut down on the number of people with mental illness who kill themselves, get arrested, go to jail, become homeless or hospitalized, and hurt others.

Research even shows 81 percent of the mentally ill people in the program like it. And why not? Being psychotic and delusional is not an exercise of civil liberties, it’s the exact opposite. When psychotic, people with mental illness can be hijacked by fearful hallucinations and voices telling them to reject treatment or harm others. Medication can help restore their sanity. It’s certainly a better alternative than inpatient commitment, or jail. That’s where Andrew and Eric are now.

But like many people, my brother didn’t fall under the current parameters of Kendra’s Law. And some who do get into treatment are forced out prematurely because of dangerous loopholes. The Kendra’s Law Improvement Act would close them and make sure more people who could benefit from Kendra’s Law gain access and that fewer are kicked out prematurely.

The expanded Kendra’s Law would require mental health officials to evaluate people who are involuntarily committed — those
who were a danger to self or others — before they release them. It would also require that mentally ill prisoners be evaluated before release, to determine if a court order is needed to ensure the safety of the released prisoner and the community. The updated law would also close a loophole that allows court orders to expire without anyone proactively reviewing them to see if they should be renewed.

The bill would also make it harder for authorities to simply ignore family members’ reports of mentally ill people who need treatment. Oh, how that would have helped my family!

If my brother had been part of Kendra’s Law, he would have had a case manager to make sure he took his medications. And if he didn’t, my brother would have been hospitalized to determine if he was becoming danger to self or others.

Instead, he was left free to go off medications, free to deteriorate … and we were powerless to stop it.