It’s been 20 years.
On Jan. 10, 2001, Scott Thorpe went on a shooting rampage in Nevada City and Grass Valley, killing Laura Wilcox, 19, Pearlie Mae Feldman, 68, and Michael Markle, 24. Several other victims were wounded in the attacks that paralyzed the entire county.
Spurred by the death of their daughter, Nick and Amanda Wilcox became nationally known advocates both for gun control and for Laura’s Law, legislation designed to authorize court-ordered outpatient treatment for people with severe, untreated mental illness.
Nevada County Behavioral Health Director Phebe Bell called Laura’s Law an amazing legacy from the Wilcoxes.
“I have so much personal, deep respect for Nick and Amanda, for turning so much pain into such a positive and beautiful thing,” Bell said. “To not end in bitterness – there were so many other places they could have landed, but (instead) they doubled down on compassion and turned it into a useful solution.”
Both Nick and Amanda have often said the advocacy work kept them afloat after Laura’s death.
“When you’re faced with what we were faced with, you have the choice of crawling into a hole, or fighting back,” Nick said. “Laura’s Law, in a sense, is an expression of our fighting back and trying to change the system.”
Amanda called the process of becoming an advocate a steep learning curve.
“We were never experts,” she said. “But we had a story.”
“We used our situation to create change,” Nick said, noting that over the years, they were responsible for getting nearly 90 bills signed into law.
“We were good advocates,” Amanda said. “We wanted to make a positive difference and save lives after Laura was killed.”
Laura’s Law, which was signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, was first implemented in Nevada County in 2008. Other counties lagged well behind, but in 2019 Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1976, removing a “sunset” clause and making the implementation of Laura’s Law the default for counties.
That really was the culmination of the couple’s efforts, said Nick.
“We thought passing a bill was the main thing,” he said. “That took a year and a half, and then it has taken 20 years to get it to this point. It made us realize that implementation is much a part of the journey as the actual passage.”
Laura’s Law in practice
Referrals for “Assisted Outpatient Treatment” can be made for adults who have a history of being non-compliant with treatment, and who are a serious risk of harm to themselves or others. Referrals can only come from certain sources – a relative, a cohabitant, an agency or hospital director, a treatment provider or a peace officer.
Judges can order assisted outpatient treatment, but most clients referred to the program comply with treatment without the county taking the final step of a hearing to order it.
“When a referral is made, a mental health professional seeks them out and offers them services,” said Nevada County Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderson, who has been a part of the Nevada County program since its inception. “Sometimes they meet more than once, to build up rapport. Most of the time they accept services, so there is no need to go to court.”
Anderson estimated that about two-thirds of those referred accept services voluntarily.
Once someone is referred, therapists from Turning Point begin meeting with them and providing treatment.
Turning Point currently provides assisted outpatient treatment in three counties, including Nevada County, and expects to serve more with the passage of Assembly Bill 1976, said Carol Stanchfield, Director of AACT & AOT Program Services.
Stanchfield has seen first-hand the effect of Laura’s Law, as she was the program director tasked with providing treatment services in 2008.
“The amazing thing is, we can see here, every single day, the benefit of what can happen when people get the treatment they need,” she said.
“This is not an approach we can implement in isolation, it takes a community, it takes all of us to do it effectively and to realize the benefits that are transformational,” Stanchfield said. “It’s hard to notice over a short period of time – but when you look back, we can appreciate where we are as a county now versus where we were in 2001…. It’s completely remarkable and is something I have a great deal of gratitude for every single day.”
At the beginning, Stanchfield said, the process of implementing Laura’s Law encountered a lot of resistance.
“It was pretty intense,” she said.
But over the years, Stanchfield said, the data has shown how successful Laura’s Law can be.
“It’s been interesting, implementing it here in Nevada County and ultimately being able to support other counties in their process,” she said. “(We) ended up being a model.”
Over the years, Anderson has seen acceptance of Laura’s Law grow, attributing resistance to lingering misunderstandings of what the law entails and stigmas about mental illness.
There are still issues to overcome, he said.
“Assisted outpatient treatment is a civil process and it requires the person’s condition be brought to our attention as they are starting to decompensate, before they do something extreme,” Anderson said. “Those individuals combining criminal behavior with severe mental illness, they aren’t always brought to people’s attention.”
Thorpe was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to the Napa State Hospital for the mentally ill. He remains at that facility today.
In the past few years, the local court system has had a number of defendants deemed not competent to stand trial because of their mental health status.
“They get sent to a state mental hospital until they regain competency, and that process is extremely overloaded,” Anderson said. “It takes many months to get somebody a hospital bed who’s been deemed incompetent, so they sit in county jail …. (and) being in custody doesn’t promote competency.”
But, he said, implementation of assisted outpatient treatment throughout the state is showing progress can be made in treating such cases.
“Even for those who end up in a court order … it’s about encouraging wellness,” Anderson said, adding that out of nearly 200 cases that ended up under a court order since the implementation of Laura’s Law, only a couple proved unsuccessful.
“Those who have stuck with it, almost all of them have gotten a sense of normalcy and stability – so they are able to manage their illness,” he said.
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at [email protected]
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