Emergency Call 

Alameda County has the highest rate of psychiatric detentions in the state, but has failed to adopt a law that could help severely mentally ill adults.

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Evelyn Forsyth was uncertain whether her son Ryan (both are pseudonyms) was merely acting out as teenagers do. But by the time he was twenty years old, she realized something was wrong when he locked himself in his room in their Fremont apartment and began talking to himself. She tried to persuade him to get therapy.

Ryan had a breakdown while she was at work, smashing his belongings and piling the debris in the living room. He was transported to a hospital, given medication, and sent home. Not long after that episode, he called 911, claiming that his neighbors had killed people. "The police came," Evelyn said, "and he told them please look, please come with me, they've murdered people — look, the ceiling is leaning because that's where the dead bodies are upstairs."

The officers called an ambulance and again had him transported to a hospital, where he was evaluated and transferred to a facility for intensive treatment. A few weeks later, he was released with medications, which ran out after he refused to see a psychiatrist. He decided that designer labels were evil, trashed his clothes, scratched the names off sodas and food, and became obsessed with cleaning the apartment.

As Evelyn left for her job one day in May 2010, the wind in the hallway slammed the front door shut. Ryan opened the door, told her not to slam it again, and she apologized. But the wind blew the door closed when she returned that afternoon. "Didn't I tell you not to slam that damn door? If this happens again, I am going to apply serious pressure to you," his mother said he warned. "I looked at him and it was weird because it was as though I was looking at someone else, he didn't look like my son. ... He said, 'I really will hurt you physically.'" She retreated to her room, locked the door, turned up the television, and called the police.

"All of sudden the door opens, [Ryan] walks up on me really fast and was very angry and asked, 'Who are you talking to?'... I was sitting on the edge of my bed and hung the phone up. After that, I don't know what happened. He hit me so hard that I went under right away."

When she regained consciousness, the police had arrived, and her daughter was on a gurney in the hall, bleeding. Ryan was captured a few days later, sent to Santa Rita Jail, tried on two counts of battery, and eventually assigned to a board-and-care home, where he has finally recognized he is mentally ill, his mother said.

Had Laura's Law been in place, Podborny's mother, the DeWitts, and Evelyn Forsyth could have intervened on behalf of their sons before the attacks. Like the DeWitts, Forsyth is adamant it would have helped.

In September 2010, the Alameda County Mental Health Board Adult Committee decided not to recommend adoption of Laura's Law. But Hare, the former mental health board chairman, thinks the committee should take another look. "Instead of detaining a dangerous person who has a history of dangerousness, assessing him, maybe giving him drugs for 24 hours until they can sort it out at the emergency psychiatric detention facility, and then kicking him back on the street," he said, "they [the committee members] can determine that it would be cheaper over the long run to try and impose stability on the demonstrably dangerous person; dangerous to himself and others.

"Counties ought to consider whether [Laura's Law] would actually be less costly in terms of revolving-door detentions and certainly less costly in terms of human misery to stranger victims or to the mentally ill subjects themselves," Hare continued. "In light of what I saw in terms of return calls as a police officer I would be in favor of the law, especially since the counties can implement it in a way that is not oppressive. It's benign and it gives the opportunity to reduce human misery. It's not detention; it's treatment."

But Majak of Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services said that she doubts that Laura's Law would work — even for adults who have a history of violence and are incapable of understanding that they need help. "It is a very challenging society dilemma, no question about it," she said. But she added that "society says people have free will to make some choices, which leads to the question of whether they are capable of making those kinds of decisions; which is why people are on conservatorships if they are not able to make those decisions."

A report about Laura's Law prepared prior to the county Adult Committee hearing at the request of the director of Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services recommended against its implementation, in favor of conservatorships, according to the author, Francesca Tenenbaum, who is the director of Patients' Rights Advocates of the Mental Health Association of Alameda County, a nonprofit organization under contract to the county. Tenenbaum is a committee member and attended the hearing.

"I'm not going to say it [making better use of conservatorships] would help everyone whom they say would be helped by Laura's Law, but they would be helped by improving the system we already have," she explained. "A conservatorship is stronger than an outpatient commitment; a conservatorship is so much stronger because a conservator can decide where somebody lives, what their treatment is going to be.

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