Mental Health Law Debate No Place For Politics

            Many of New Jersey’s students who have just returned to school are studying civics, and over the course of the school year they will learn that a cornerstone of American democracy is the rule of law.

            They will come to understand that as citizens, we are not able to pick and choose which laws we follow and which we simply disregard.

            Hopefully these students can remind the Christie administration that it has the same obligation we all have to follow the law in New Jersey.

            On Aug. 10, one day before the Department of Human Services was to begin a three-year implementation process of New Jersey’s new involuntary outpatient commitment law, the administration announced that it would indefinitely delay the enactment of legislation that was passed by the legislature and signed into law last year.

             The administration cites a lack of funding for this delay, a concern that I fully appreciate, and an issue that I would have willingly discussed with members of the Department during the budget process.

            Unfortunately, because the administration was not forthcoming with its intention to delay implementation and its inability to properly budget for the enactment of this law, the safety of individuals struggling with mental illness, their families, and their communities are in danger.

            To find out how this could have happened and to seek a solution, as chairwoman of the Assembly Human Services Committee, I convened a Sept. 16 hearing on the issue. Two memorable participants at the hearing were the parents of Gregory Katsnelson, an 11-year-old boy who was killed in 2002 by a mentally ill man who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but refused treatment.

            Those of us who heard their testimony were moved by their tragic story and their fight to get Gregory’s Law, as it is known, implemented.

            Two members of the committee were noticeably absent, however, with one referring to this hearing as a “witch hunt.” While there is no denying that public debate is too often soiled by politics these days, the issues that come before the Assembly Human Services Committee are not about politics or even money, they are about people.  

            It’s about saving lives.

            It’s an issue of importance to each and every New Jerseyan, and I am very sorry that families who have been directly hurt by untreated mental illness continue to have to relive their tragedies because this law is being ignored.

            All of us are very sensitive to the fiscal situation in New Jersey, but the bottom line is it’s the administration’s job to properly budget and comply with the law. It’s also apparent that ignoring this law will prove even more costly to taxpayers. That’s irresponsible.

            I plan to continue this dialogue and consider our options as we work towards finding out how and when this law can be implemented. Hopefully, for everyone’s well-being, that will happen soon, and it will do so free of political grandstanding.

 

Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle represents the 37th Legislative District in Bergen County and is chairwoman of the Assembly Human Services Committee.

Mental Health Law Debate No Place For Politics