WXYZ reports prompt proposed changes to law barely used to help mentally ill

WXYZ (LANSING) - You wouldn’t have known it had you been there.  There was no press conference or ceremony.  But on Friday, in St. Clair County, a probate judge made history.

"I’m going to enter an order that requires Mr. Becker to participate in assisted outpatient treatment," said Judge John Tomlinson.

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For the first time in a decade, because of reporting by the 7 Investigators, mental health treatment was ordered under Kevin’s Law, a law that had been unknown and virtually unused since 2004. It was designed to help people like Bill Becker, who was near rock bottom when he talked with us earlier this fall.

"Some days, I can't even function," said Becker.

For years, he has struggled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

"I just had a breakdown and ended up walking the streets of Pontiac and ended up in Independence Township," Becker said.

He has been in and out of hospitals more times than he can count – trapped in a cycle of despair familiar to countless people with mental illness.

"I can’t even get out of bed. It’s tough to work," Becker said.

In Michigan, those struggling with a mental illness have had only one option when they’re in a crisis: to be committed to a private hospital where they’ll be stabilized, medicated and released days later. Kevin’s Law – passed 10 years ago – was supposed to change that.

As the 7 Investigators reported in September, the law was designed to allow judges to order more meaningful care: outpatient treatment that lasts no less than six months. Judges can order services like therapy or a case manager to make sure that patients stay on vital medications, and that they’re working. But as we discovered, it sounded good on paper, but that’s about it. Just ask Bill Becker’s mom, Gloria Bertrand.

"Nobody could tell me anything about it," she said. "Nobody knew anything about it."

When his mom aw our reports, she called St. Clair County Community Mental Health and said she wanted her son to receive treatment under Kevin’s Law. She found the same thing we did: the law was a mystery in most courtrooms.

There are plenty of reasons why, from being overly complicated, misunderstood and, perhaps most important, unfunded.

"It’s a failure. It’s been a complete failure," said Wayne County Chief Probate Judge Milton Mack.

But as a result of our reporting, that may be changing.  Days after our initial reports, officials with Department of Community Health announced a special task force designed to address the problems with Kevin’s Law, and they cited our investigation.

This week, the eight-member task force met for the first time, and after the meeting, officials announced new recommendations they expect will make the law more widely utilized. The biggest is this: because Kevin’s law is so complex and often confounds parents like Gloria, the panel recommended that judges order care on their own. 

"So we removed that barrier, so that Kevin’s Law can be used for any petition for mental health treatment filed in probate court," said Judge Mack, who serves on the state panel.

Instead of just dozens of petitions filed a year, with these proposed changes, judges now expect to see thousands.

For Bill Becker, it could be life changing. Thanks to the judge’s order, he now has set meetings with medical professionals that include individual and group therapy, appointments with a psychiatrist and substance abuse treatment. For the first time, he has hope. 

"It’s going to be nice to get back in counseling and things like that," Becker said. "I think it’s going to work this time."

The task force’s work is far from over.  Next month, they’ll meet again to address the law's lack of funding.  The judges we spoke to agreed that money needs to be set aside for the law.  Ultimately, regardless of what they recommend, it’s up to Michigan’s legislature to provide it. 

To learn more about filing a petition under Kevin's Law, click here.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.