ALBANY — Following the wake of the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, state Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, has renewed her call for strengthening New York’s Kendra’s Law to ensure people with mental illness receive proper treatment, and vowed to push her legislation when session convenes in January.
“Obviously, Adam Lanza was a deeply disturbed person who needed help. There is no other explanation for why he would murder 20 angelic children and the six adults who were trying to protect them,” Sen. Young said.
“Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, reportedly was preparing to commit him to a psychiatric facility because she apparently realized he had decompensated to a dangerous level. If Kendra’s Law had been passed in Connecticut, perhaps it would have allowed Ms. Lanza to intervene with her son earlier, before the situation reached a boiling point and he acted out in such a heinous way,” she said. “The current system is flawed, even in New York. Why should we allow people with the most severe psychiatric disturbances who pose a risk to themselves or others to deteriorate before they get help? Why should we wait until they become a safety threat? It doesn’t make sense. Strengthening Kendra’s Law would save victims,” she said.
“A measure similar to Kendra’s Law failed to pass the Connecticut State Legislature earlier this year. While we never will know if it would have prevented Lanza from killing his innocent victims in cold blood, studies have shown that Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) is an effective tool in stopping people with mental illness from doing harm to themselves and others,” Sen. Young said.
Kendra’s Law was signed by Gov. Pataki in 1999, and allows for court-ordered AOT for individuals who voluntarily won’t seek help but are a safety threat. The law is designed to prevent serious harm to the mentally ill person or others, but gaps exist in the New York system that must be fixed to make it more effective, according to Sen. Young.
Kendra’s Law is named in honor of Kendra Webdale, who grew up in the Chautauqua County village of Fredonia in Sen. Young’s district. On Jan. 3, 1999, a man with a long history of schizophrenia stepped onto a busy subway platform in New York City and abruptly pushed Kendra, 32, a journalist and photographer, in front of a 400-ton N train at the 23rd Street subway station. Witnesses would later testify that Kendra’s attacker, 29-year-old Andrew Goldstein, did not flee the scene. Instead, stopping just feet from the subway exit, Goldstein quietly stated, “I’m crazy. I’m psychotic. Take me to the hospital.”
Earlier this year, the Connecticut State Legislature reportedly rejected a bill similar to Kendra’s Law that was proposed to enhance the care and treatment of individuals with psychiatric disabilities through AOT.
According to CBS Connecticut, had the AOT bill passed, it would have given the state the right to require treatment for a person with mental illness if there was evidence to believe the individual could be a danger to himself or the community.
A 2009 Duke University study showed that AOT significantly reduces physical harm to others. This study also showed it vastly improves the quality of life for people with severe mental illness by reducing suicide attempts, hospitalizations, incarcerations, homelessness, and alcohol and drug abuse.
“Untreated mental illness is a major factor in far too many acts of violence, whether someone opens fire on a classroom or shopping mall, shoves a person in front of a subway train, or stabs another individual,” Sen. Young said.
“While those suffering from mental illness also are far too frequently the victims themselves of violent crimes, our system’s failure to ensure treatment to those with very serious conditions has led to horrific acts against innocent bystanders,” she said.
“Across the state from New York City to Western New York, there have been hundreds of cases of untreated mental illness with tragic consequences during the past several years. This carnage must stop. It is urgent that action is taken in Albany,” she said.
Highlights of Senator Young’s bill (S.4881-B) include:
® making Kendra’s Law permanent;
® changing the period which a court may order AOT from six months to up to one year. This measure provides judicial flexibility, and studies have indicated that longer periods of treatment, when appropriate, have been shown to be more effective;
® requiring follow-up on those who move during the AOT period to ensure that people receive their treatment;
® requiring an evaluation for AOT when mental health patients are released from inpatient treatment or incarceration so that people needing services do not fall through the cracks; and
® requiring the Commissioner of the Office of Mental Health to develop an educational pamphlet on the AOT process of petitioning so that family members have information on how to file a report. Oftentimes, loved ones are at a loss and feel helpless about how they can help their mentally ill family member.