When Kendra's Law was passed, we reluctantly supported it because the state had failed to uphold its responsibility to provide adequate outpatient care for the mentally ill. The law allows people to be committed to mental hospitals against their will if they are found to be a danger to themselves or others. The law is needed because patients, either through a lack of outpatient services or their own behavior, stop taking their medication.
The threat of forcing people into institutions is not a pleasant one. It is rife with the possibility of abuse. That's why it's good to see that in Erie County, at least, it's being used with sensitivity and effectiveness. The county has managed to top other nearby counties, including Monroe, Onondaga and Albany, in the number of residents who either agreed to enhanced treatment or were ordered by a court to undergo treatment.
It is painful when family members have to testify in court to force a loved one to undergo treatment or face the prospect of being committed to a mental institution. Erie County has managed to largely avoid that kind of forced institutionalization by acquiring out-of-court agreements that prescribe outpatient care in more than 90 percent of its eligible cases.
Up until the State Legislature enacted Kendra's Law in 1999, New York was steeped in the premise of deinstitutionalization, a policy of releasing mentally ill residents from psychiatric hospitals into community care. The only problem was that adequate community care rarely existed. Unfortunately, it took a mentally ill man to push Kendra Webdale to her death under a New York City subway train to force action.
The death of Webdale at least served to reopen the issue of outpatient care for the mentally ill. The problem, as critics see it, is that Kendra's Law brands the mentally ill as violent - even though they rarely are - and fails to focus on the real problem of inadequate outpatient treatment.
It took Webdale's death to make it painfully obvious that some measures needed to be enacted. That's not to say that mentally ill people cannot manage well on their own. Many can, and do. There are those, however, who can't, and need care.
Erie County's success shows the law can be used for good purposes, without unduly stigmatizing the mentally ill more than they already are.