One son sits at Napa State Hospital accused of killing a man during a psychotic episode -- not two months after he was released from John George Psychiatric Pavilion in San Leandro over his parents' and a psychiatrist's objections. The other son had been living on the street until last month. He's now at John George, where he has been involuntarily committed by authorities four times in the past six weeks.

Candy DeWitt and Patricia Fontana-Narell share a common heartbreak. Both are mothers with adult sons who suffer from severe mental illness. They have been fighting the mental health care system for years trying in vain to get treatment for their sons -- only to be told that under current laws the men could not be compelled to get help because they are adults, that unless they presented a clear and imminent danger to themselves or someone else -- or were gravely disabled -- there was nothing the mothers could do except watch their sons spiral.

DeWitt's son, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, eventually snapped. On Feb. 12, 2012, Daniel Jordan DeWitt, then 23, wandered onto the Berkeley Hills property of Peter Cukor in search of an imaginary fiancee. He has been charged with killing the 67-year-old but was found incompetent to stand trial. Authorities have committed him to a long-term psychiatric hospital -- as his parents had been desperately seeking for years. But now, it's too late.

After reading about the case, Fontana-Narell contacted DeWitt. Her son, 28, suffers from bipolar disorder and has been living on the streets for five years -- cycling in and out of John George -- since he ran away from home.


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The two mothers have joined forces in an effort to reform Alameda County's mental health laws -- driven by their desperation to get help for their sons.

"You're a parent, you're frantic and their behavior is getting more worrisome," Fontana-Narell said. "But you get told that there is nothing you can do until they hit rock bottom. That's like looking at someone who has cancer, and you go to the doctor and they say, "we can't treat you until it hits stage 5."

She and DeWitt believe that Laura's Law -- if it were adopted in Alameda County -- would give family members a way to intervene on behalf of severely mentally ill loved ones who refuse voluntary treatment.

Laura's Law was passed by the Legislature in 2002. It is named after 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, who was shot to death in Nevada County by a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia who refused to get treatment for his mental illness -- despite his family's efforts.

The law allows family members and partners to request a mental health assessment of a loved one. The court can order potentially violent mentally ill people into outpatient treatment.

The state left it up to each county to decide whether to implement the law. It also stipulated that no funds could be taken away from voluntary treatment programs to do so. Nevada County is the only county in the state to enact Laura's Law. Officials there credit the law with helping keep violent, mentally ill individuals from harming others, while protecting the rights of the mentally ill and controlling public costs.

DeWitt and Fontana-Narell want Alameda County to follow suit.

They met with Supervisor Wilma Chan, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors' Health Committee, and asked her to recommend that the county adopt Laura's Law. After a public hearing in March, Chan ordered a report from the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency. There will be a 30-day public comment period after its release.

There are those who oppose the law on the grounds that it stigmatizes the mentally ill, that it infringes upon people's rights and that voluntary treatment programs have been proven to be most effective.

Yet what of people with repeated psychiatric hospitalizations who have been arrested numerous times or have been violent -- potentially dangerous people who refuse voluntary treatment?

Can you really expect someone who thinks a black helicopter is circling overhead trying to get him and his mother is going to make a rational decision about his health?

One symptom of certain types of mental illness is that the people who are ill don't think they are, which is why they often refuse to seek treatment or stay on their medications. Voluntary treatment programs only work for people who admit they have a problem.

Alameda County must find some way to deal with severely mentally ill people who fall through the cracks with tragic implications for themselves and others.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Reach her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin.