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July 4, 2005

Victory for Kendra's Law

Kendra's law will be going strong after the victory that it just had. This five year old program in New York gives outpatient treatment to those with severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder.

The improvement and extension of Kendra's Law for five more years is a victory for mental health advocates throughout New York and an example of compassion and common sense trumping partisan politics.

But most importantly it is a victory for those in New York lost to the symptoms of severe untreated mental illnesses.

Kendra's Law is New York's five-year-old program allowing assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) for people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder who are too ill to recognize their need for, or incapable of maintaining, treatment. The program allows a court to order someone who meets very specific criteria into community-based mental health treatment. Kendra's Law serves only those in extreme distress caused by lack of treatment: when compared with a similar population of mental health service recipients, those placed in AOT were twice as likely to have been homeless and 50 percent more likely to have had contact with the criminal justice system prior to receiving a court order.

That the state legislature chose to retain control over Kendra's Law by extending it rather than making the exemplary program permanent is not a surprise, only a disappointment. The intense support across party lines (the vote was 60-0 in the Senate, 144-1 in the Assembly) shows how greatly Kendra's Law is valued in the Capitol.

This broadly supported renewal of the law means that current beneficiaries of New York's AOT program -- in the last five years they number more than 7,000 -- can continue their progress uninterrupted, including dramatic reductions of 74 percent or more in homelessness, psychiatric hospitalizations, arrests, and incarcerations.

Those who are getting help and support through the program came out in force over the last few months to testify about its value. To many of them, like Stephanie (see note) and her son John (see note), Kendra's Law is nothing short of a miracle.

"(John) has been hospitalized more than a dozen times," explains Stephanie. "(He) is unable to see that when he stops taking his medication he becomes psychotic and within a matter of days ... becomes so ill that he has to be rehospitalized. What (he) has been able to understand, however, is that when he is in the Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program and under a court order, if he violates it ... he will be rehospitalized ... (John) takes his AOT program and its court order very seriously. It is the only thing that has worked ...."

"Without AOT, my son would either be in jail or dead," said Susan (see note), another mother. "It alone has made a difference for him by helping him to stay on his meds."

When the law was first adopted six years ago, there was trepidation among some in the consumer and mental health provider communities. Those initial concerns were alleviated by the outcome data and experiences from the program's first five years, which showed that not only are participants gaining significant benefits in quality of life and reduction of negative consequences like arrests, but also that those who are actually receiving treatment via the court orders appreciate and understand their value. An extraordinary 75 percent of recipients interviewed said they valued assisted outpatient treatment for helping them regain control over their lives and 81 percent said that AOT helped them to get and stay well. Those results are too difficult to ignore for even the small but vocal group of opponents who initially opposed the law's passage in 1999 -- even most of them joined the call for the renewal of Kendra's Law.

Opponents and supporters alike agreed on extension -- and also on the fact that the law has been sporadically applied throughout the state. The counties that are using the law are seeing striking results -- so almost half of the improvements to the law wisely focus on ensuring its broader application so that others can also reap its benefits. The changes include creating new classes of authorized petitioners, slightly expanding the program's eligibility criteria, explicitly permitting the enforcement of an AOT order outside the issuing county, and creating a judicial education program that will teach judges and their staffs to more effectively administer the law.

Many people deserve kudos for recognizing the value of Kendra's Law and fighting to keep it. Governor George Pataki, the New York Office of Mental Health, and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer have all been strong and valiant advocates for the law, laboring -- often together -- over many of the improvements. Pataki and Spitzer are both to be lauded for putting party affiliations aside to support this commonsense piece of legislation.

The Treatment Advocacy Center commends the many family members and consumers, including members of NAMI-New York, who spoke out so passionately for the law, rising above the fear of stigma and opposition to share how Kendra's Law has made their often emotional journeys less rocky and more hopeful. For courage and bravery, nobody can match their voices, quivering as they talked about feeling the system had failed before Kendra's Law, moments when they feared death, situations when all seemed lost. And then sharing the difference AOT made and the changes they saw and are still seeing -- the improvements in medication adherence, quality of life, and interpersonal relationships that are harder to quantify but vital to acknowledge.

The Treatment Advocacy Center also commends those who bravely turned their private tragedies to public good, particularly Edgar Rivera, who lost his legs after being pushed in front of a subway train by a man with untreated schizophrenia, only weeks after the eerily parallel incident that claimed Kendra Webdale's life. His inspiring testimony for renewal made a big impression on legislators.

And, of course, our limitless admiration and gratitude goes as always to the Webdale family, led publicly by Kendra's mother, Pat, and supported by a large group of Webdales of every generation who have chosen to channel what could have been an unfathomable well of anger and grief into tenacious advocacy. Their fight is not just for the law that bears Kendra's name, but for a legacy of treatment that bears Kendra's spirit.

To view the full press release go to: http://tinyurl.com/bsf4z

This press release came from U.S. Newswire

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