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Dispute threatens needed revisions to Kendra's Law

The fight over how to improve care for people with serious mental illness and keep the public safer may be taking place in Albany, but the pugilists are from Western New York. The fight is over to what to do about individuals like mentally ill Jawain Wilson, who wasn't receiving care for his mental illness when he stabbed 21-year-old Joshua Thomas at Buffalo Goodwill Industries, or Brian Rossel, who was off treatment when he allegedly strangled his father in his South Buffalo home.

In one corner is Sen. Catherine Young, R-Olean, who wants to close loopholes in Kendra's Law that force seriously mentally ill individuals who need treatment to go without it. In the opposite corner is Erie County Mental Health Commissioner Philip Endress, in his heavyweight capacity as president of the New York State Conference of Local Mental Hygiene Directors.

Kendra's Law was named after Kendra Webdale, a Fredonia resident killed by someone who, like Wilson and Thomas, went off treatment for his mental illness. Kendra's Law allows courts to require certain seriously mentally ill individuals who refuse treatment and have a history of violence or needless hospitalizations to accept treatment as a condition for living in the community. Researchers found Kendra's Law reduces physical harm to others by 47 percent, property destruction by 43 percent, hospitalization by 77 percent, arrests by 83 percent and incarceration by 87 percent.

Before closing the loopholes, Endress says "more study is needed." He is wrong.

Right now, individuals who need treatment to prevent them from becoming violent are going without it because mental health directors don't know about them and, more incredibly, don't want to know. The Kendra's Law Improvement Act would require corrections officials to inform mental health directors about seriously mentally ill prisoners who are being released and require hospitals to inform them about involuntarily committed patients who are being released. That will allow mental health officials to determine if any services are needed to keep the patients healthy and the community safe.

The Conference of Local Mental Hygiene Directors and mental health programs oppose these reforms because mental health directors would then need to provide treatment. They don't want to lose the ability to cherry pick the easiest to treat

Those in Young's corner include families of people with mental illness like me, who want better care for their mentally ill loved ones, and the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police who see closing these loopholes as a way to keep the public safer. The question is: Will the legislators throw in the towel or fight for the people?

Lynne Shuster is founder and past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Buffalo and Erie County