Mother says law could have prevented Berkeley murder

The mother of a man charged with killing Berkeley resident Peter Cukor says Laura's Law could have prevented the murder.
February 19, 2014 9:42:51 PM PST
Should mentally ill people in California be forced into treatment? The mother of a mentally ill man says if he had been, an innocent murder victim would be alive tonight. The Bay Area county where that happened is about to decide how to handle those with serious mental issues.

Laura's law is named for a young woman in Nevada County, California who was killed by a mental patient in 2001. That is the only county that has fully implemented the controversial law. Two others have pilot programs, but for more than a year now, a group called Voices Of the Mothers has been pushing Alameda County to get on board.

"This was a preventable tragedy," said Candy DeWitt.

DeWitt is talking about the beating death two years ago of 67-year-old Berkeley Hills resident Peter Cukor. DeWitt's son Daniel was charged with the crime, but declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. She says the family had tried for years to get help.

"We can have as many good programs as we want in our community, but if they are voluntary and they don't understand they are ill, these people, they will not walk in and ask for help," said DeWitt.

That's why DeWitt is leading a grassroots effort to get Laura's Law implemented in Alameda County.

The 2002 law calls for involuntary community based, court-ordered outpatient treatment for certain individuals with a documented history of serious mental illness.

"It's outpatient, but it's still forced," said Lisa Smusz, the executive director of PEERS.

Smusz runs PEERS, an organization where the majority of employees have recovered from mental health issues. Smusz is opposed to Laura's law.

"At any time you introduce force into a situation, where you're talking about somebody getting treatment, where they're forced to get a treatment, the efficacy or how well that's going to work, it's going to fall apart basically because of that. It's not going to be as effective when someone can't choose that treatment for themselves," said Smusz.

But Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan believes Laura's Law is a better alternative than the current system where the mentally ill can be held against their will for up to 72 hours. She'll vote to support it.

"It can only take place for a period of six months. You can't force people to take medication unless you get a separate court order. I consider this to be a much more humane option than being locked up in prison because you have a mental illness," said Chan.

If the board approves, Laura's Law would be put into place later this year. It would be a pilot project with just five patients to determine if it works.


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