For families’ sake, fix ‘Kendra’s Law’


Published May 23, 2011 in NY Post

My kindhearted brother, Thomas Sci mone, was shot dead by Suffolk County police on Thanksgiving of last year. He was diagnosed 16 years ago with bipolar disorder. Like many people with serious mental illness, he was free to go off stabilizing treatments, deteriorate and act out — leading to that fatal encounter.

It is too late for my brother, who like so many others was a victim of the New York’s broken mental-health system. But a bill — a strengthening of “Kendra’s Law” — would help individuals like Thomas. Held up by the Legislature’s mental-health committees, it must move forward.

When Thomas predictably would go off treatment or reduce his medications and start to deteriorate, the mental-health system failed to help or involuntarily hospitalize him despite my family’s begging, pleading and cajoling. The system would defend his right to go off treatment or say that he couldn’t be hospitalized because he was not “there” yet. If Thomas admitted himself to a mental hospital voluntarily, he’d be discharged prematurely, free to go off medications and needlessly deteriorate again.

Kendra’s Law, passed in 1999 after Kendra Webdale was pushed in front of a subway train by a mentally ill man, gives courts the power to require our relatives who are seriously ill and have a history of violence or noncompliance with treatment to stay in treatment as a condition for living in the community.

As Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wrote at the time, “While families witness firsthand the personal destruction of mental illness, they frequently have no power to stop or control it.” That’s me. When used, Kendra’s Law dramatically reduces hospitalization, incarceration, arrests, homelessness and suicide. It keeps our mentally ill loved ones, our families and the public safer.

But Kendra’s Law has giant loopholes that prevent some who could benefit from getting into the program. State Sen. Catherine Young (R-Olean) and Assembly Member Aileen Gunther (D-Forestburgh) have proposed a bill that would strengthen Kendra’s Law and close some the loopholes, but the Senate and Assembly mental-health committees haven’t moved the bill forward.

Why? Instead of listening to families of the mentally ill, legislators are listening to mental-health-service providers and the state Office of Mental Health, who fear courts will require them to treat people they’ve historically rejected — the most ill.

Families know that the seriously mentally ill who were violent in the past are those most likely to become violent in the future. The Young-Gunther bill smartly requires mental-health officials to look at the records of the mentally ill who are being discharged from jails and prisons and those of hospital patients who were “danger to self or others” to determine if they need court-ordered treatment. That might have helped my brother.

The bill would also require officials to investigate when families like mine

provide credible information that a loved one is mentally ill and in need of treatment to prevent deterioration.

No one can ever understand the challenges faced daily by families of the seriously mentally ill as we struggle to keep our relatives in treatment. Although each of our family situations is slightly different, the results are often the same.

In Syracuse, police shot and killed Victor Campione’s mentally ill brother, Benjamin. Benjamin thought he was Jesus and was threatening people with a pellet gun. Benjamin wouldn’t take medications because, as Jesus, he didn’t think he needed them.

Vanessa and Brian Bellucci on Staten Island have a slightly different story. Their brother Eric wouldn’t stay on his antipsychotic medications. Despite their many pleas, mental-health officials failed to help them. The police did come — after Eric killed his parents, as the Belluccis had feared would happen.

The Legislature passed a bill to prevent the mentally ill from gaining access to guns; it should pass this bill to help them get access to treatment. Otherwise, people with serious mental illness will be sent to the back of the line rather than to the front.

Or in the case of my brother, the morgue.

Pat Scimone advocates for the mentally ill and their families.

Reprinted with Permission.