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San Francisco passes law allowing forced treatment of mentally ill

By Jennifer Chaussee

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco lawmakers approved a law late on Tuesday allowing the forced treatment of mentally ill patients under certain conditions, drawing swift criticism from patient advocacy groups who say the measure tramples civil rights.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which passes legislation for the California city and county, adopted by a vote of 9-2 a measure known as Laura's Law.

If given final approval it would allow court-ordered outpatient treatment for people with chronic and severe mental illness deemed a risk to themselves or others or who have been jailed or hospitalized more than once in the prior three years, among other conditions.

San Francisco legislator Mark Farrell, who proposed the legislation to the board, said the program would help vulnerable sick people "and provide the families the support they deserve".

Modeled after a similar involuntary treatment law passed in New York in 1999, California lawmakers passed Laura's Law in 2002 after 19-year-old Laura Wilcox was shot and killed by a mentally ill patient at a Nevada County behavioral health clinic where she was an intern.

The state law allows family members, police officers or mental health professionals to file petitions requesting the court-mandated treatment of a mentally ill person.

Individual counties can opt out. Laura's Law has only been fully adopted by three California counties: Nevada, Orange, and Yolo. It is expected to receive final approval from supervisors next week and then be signed into law by San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, who has expressed support for the program.

The law's implementation has been slow and sparse due to the concerns about civil rights, resources and costs.

"This is the wrong direction for any community but especially a progressive community like San Francisco," said Mental Health Association of San Francisco Executive Director Eduardo Vega.

"There's no real doubt that this is a process that fosters stigma around mental illness," Vega told Reuters after the vote.

The law requires city health officials to offer a mental health patient voluntary treatment before being forced into an involuntary outpatient program.

It also appoints a three-person panel to each case, which includes a forensic psychiatrist who would review the case to determine if a court-mandate is necessary.

(Reporting by Jennifer Chaussee in San Francisco; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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