The New York Times

August 4, 1999

Albany Accord on Confining of Mentally Ill


By RAYMOND HERNANDEZ

ALBANY -- Gov. George E. Pataki and legislative leaders have agreed on a plan that gives the courts new authority to force mentally ill people to undergo treatment or face hospitalization against their will.

With the plan announced on Tuesday, New York is now set to join nearly 40 other states that have enacted similar laws after years of concern over mental patients who have become violently unstable after they are released from psychiatric institutions and are left to take medication on their own.

The situation has been of particular concern here in New York, where the state has shut down many of its psychiatric hospitals and placed tens of thousands of mentally ill people back into the community, where they are supposed to receive additional medical care from the state but often do not.

Under current laws, involuntary commitment is limited to people deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others. But under the agreed-upon legislation, medical experts or relatives can petition the court to have a mentally ill person ordered to comply with treatment or be temporarily hospitalized for up to 72 hours.

The deal between Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader, is expected to affect as many as 4,000 people a year and will cost about $40 million for additional counseling, medication and any other treatment a judge might order. The bulk of that money, about $30 million, is included in the state budget.

"This is something that I think is going to have a profound impact on a quality of life of New Yorkers," Pataki said. "We are taking a very important step to show we care about the mentally ill. We do believe in appropriate cases they can live in the community. But in appropriate cases, they have to be compelled to take their medicine or live under supervision."

The Legislature came under intense pressure to enact the measure this year, following two highly publicized cases in New York City in which people were shoved in front of subway trains by former mental patients. One victim, Kendra Webdale, died, and the other, Edgar Rivera, had his legs severed.

Lawmakers said they wanted to prevent any more acts of violence from being committed by mentally ill people who are not receiving appropriate care. But critics note that if this new measure had been law, it would not have saved Ms. Webdale. Rather than resisting commitment, the defendant in the fatal shoving incident, Andrew Goldstein, had tried repeatedly to get help before the attack. He sought his own commitment, the critics note, but he was turned away by what they describe as the state's inadequately funded mental health system.

The idea of involuntarily committing the mentally ill has come under repeated attacks from civil liberties groups and some advocates for the mentally ill, who say that it is misguided. The critics argue that the public would be far better served if the state spent more money to provide supervised housing and other community-based services for the mentally ill.

The agreement was announced this morning during an emotional ceremony that was attended by Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as Rivera and relatives of Kendra Webdale.

"I am just glad that good has come from this," said Rivera, who along with the Webdales has lobbied lawmakers to adopt the measure, known as "Kendra's Law."

Ms. Webdale's mother, Patricia, expressed similar relief and gratitude. "I thank Kendra," she said tearfully from a podium. "I thank her for being the kind of person who would inspire our family to stick together and go on to do something for other people."

The deal reached Tuesday came after Pataki and Democratic legislators cleared the obstacles that had held up a final agreement for months. A key one was whether the state should be required to pay for counseling and other treatment that patients need to undergo to avoid being involuntarily hospitalized.

The Democrats wanted the state to pick up the costs. But Pataki opposed that approach, saying the point of the proposed law was not to provide additional services to mental patients but to get them to comply with treatment that has already been prescribed. In the end, the two sides reached a compromise that requires both the state and local governments to pay for any additional costs. The law is estimated to cost the state about $30 million per year, and local government about half that much.


Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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