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The Story Behind Kendra’s Law

The New York state Assembly’s mental health committee is reviewing a bill that would remove the sunset clause from a law responsible for mandating treatment of people with mental illness. Called Kendra’s Law, it was conceived in 1999 and has been a source of debate ever since.

Kendra’s mother, Pat Webdale, remembers receiving a call from another of her daughters that Kendra had been killed. 

“Well, the phone rang and it was Kim,” Webdale says. “A newsperson had left a—well, you know phones were different—so a message was on and it said are you related to the young woman that was killed in the subway? And Kim picked it up. The newsperson told her someone was killed in the subway. And then when she hung up, she called me. I said hang up right now and call the police. You know, let’s follow up and see if this is a true story.”

In January of 1999 a man pushed Kendra Webdale into the path of an oncoming subway train in Manhattan. Kendra Webdale, a 32-year-old journalist from Buffalo, was killed immediately. Police arrested Andrew Goldstein, a 29-year-old Queens resident with a decade-long history of mental illness. He’d been hospitalized in psychiatric centers, but his stays were typically short. The high-profile crime jolted the office of a then new state attorney general, Brian Stettin.

“I was a young assistant attorney general under Eliot Spitzer,” Stettin says. “It was the eve before he came in as attorney general when Kendra Webdale was pushed in front of a train. So it was on our first day at work with this new administration that the story was in the tabloids and horrifying us all.”

Stettin, now the executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, says he was asked to review New York legislation and find if he could “figure out what the gaps were.” Stettin performed research and found a gap in the system located in what is called outpatient treatment.

At the time Stettin was reviewing the legislation, if someone with a mental illness hurt themselves or someone else, it was common for the individual to be placed in the criminal justice system — far away from mental health services.

If by chance they are placed in a hospital, once they stabilize, they are released to the community, where, without supervision, their condition might quickly worsen. Stettin wanted a law that would require such people to get treatment before they posed a threat. 

“Of course,” Stettin says, “the other thing we needed to do was we very much wanted to call it Kendra’s Law in honor of Kendra Webdale. And we were certainly not going to do that without the permission of the Webdale family.”

Back in Buffalo, Pat Webdale remembers receiving another call.

“Eliot Spitzer called me,” she says “and he said, ‘We are trying to pass an outpatient law. What do you think of naming it after Kendra?’”

Webdale says another of her daughters, Suzanne, was resistant to naming the law after Kendra. Suzanne, Webdale says, “had been a mental health counselor and she said it just doesn’t work. You can’t make people take their medicine.”

Webdale says Stettin and others in the Attorney General’s office pointed out that the law would create a court order and protect the rights of individuals with mental illness. Most of all, the Webdales were invited to assist in drafting the law.

But before the family would apply Kendra’s name to the bill, Webdale says, they educated themselves on mental illness—they read books on mental illness and spoke with experts in the field. Eventually, Webdale says, they agreed to put Kendra’s name on the law.

Stettin and Spitzer traveled to Buffalo where, with the Webdales, they hosted a press conference announcing the bill.

“Every week there was stuff in the newspapers,” Webdale remembers. “It’s not going to work, let’s not do it, yes we need it, let me tell you about my mentally ill child. And it went on and on.”

Webdale says they made cards that read: Pass Kendra’s Law. They gave the cards out at toll booths and mailed them all over the state.

“To tell you the truth, I actually think we were starting to lose a little bit of momentum with this legislation we proposed,” Stettin says. “Some of the opposition was gaining traction. And there was a point a couple of months later where I had started to lose hope we were going to push it through.”

Just when it appeared Kendra’s Law would not receive the support it needed, Stettin says a man named Edgar Rivera was also pushed into the path of a subway train “by someone who very much seemed to fit the profile of an individual who would benefit from AOT.”

AOT, or assisted outpatient treatment, typically includes some form of medication and case management.  

In the wake of the event, Stettin says Rivera “became a tremendous advocate” for Kendra’s Law. Photographers snapped photos of Rivera leaving a hospital wearing a “Pass Kendra’s Law” t-shirt. Stettin says Rivera and event “fueled the public’s interest in getting this legislation through.”

Kendra’s Law is a court order that establishes a treatment plan for individuals with severe mental illness.

In one scenario, if patients break from their plan the order allows the state to bring them into a hospital where they are evaluated and their treatment plan is adjusted. In general, critics of the law believe it punishes people for not following their treatment plan or forces them to take medication.     

One of those critics, Harvey Rosenthal, was present when the Kendra’s Law was signed.

“I was devastated because I felt we had been railroaded into the wrong policy,” Rosenthal says.

Rosenthal is the executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services in Albany.

“What happens, Rosenthal says, “often is the case that people look when a tragedy like that for a quick fix. They want an answer. And when you oversell the fact that mentally ill people are violent, the public gets angry and anxious, the tabloids in New York City, they roll out the drumbeat, and we got to lock them up, we got to force medicine in people.”

Rosenthal recalls research that comes from the assisted outpatient treatment pilot at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. The program ran from 1994 to 1998 and largely laid the basic groundwork for AOT and Kendra’s Law. Of the research to come out of Bellevue, Rosenthal found evidence that it was the services, not the court orders, that helped individuals with mental illness.

“It’s the wrong policy to have to rely on the police and the courts to be able to provide better service to people,” Rosenthal continues. “The services I am talking about are the ones that leave the office and hit the street and start where the person is. You don’t always start with medication and the hospital. You often start with housing, food, trust.”

As part of a compromise, Kendra’s Law was designed to expire, or sunset, every five years if it does not receive an extender. That forces state lawmakers to revisit it and judge whether it is functioning properly. In 2010, two state lawmakers proposed legislation that would remove the sunset clause. Residents, they said, should have the security that Kendra’s Law will always be there. 

“To this day there are people that support it and there are people that don’t support it,” Sen. Gunther says, “because sometimes they feel that this also stigmatizes people with mental health problems.”

Aileen Gunther is a Democratic Assemblywoman from New York’s 100th District.  She says the built-in sunset clause is “one of the best case scenarios” until all parties invested in the Kendra’s Law debate arrive to the conclusion that Kendra’s Law should be made permanent.

“We know that extenders are something that has worked in the past and we will continue to do it until we can reach some compromise,” Gunther adds.

Andrew Goldstein, the man who pushed Kendra Webdale from the platform of a New York City subway, did not respond to interview requests from WAMC.

Kendra’s Law was conceived 16 years ago, and since then, Pat Webdale has been woven into the story of mental health treatment at the state level. What does she think about the law that bears her daughter’s name?

“Well, I’ve said you don’t want to be a celebrity because of your child’s death,” Webdale says. “Or think it is such a great thing to see your name on the law. But, she was a catalyst to bring this about. And she’s not the only one. She stands for many others. There are so many other people that have been killed in the same way by a mentally ill person it could be any number of people’s names. So even though it was Kendra’s time and that happened, I guess I am proud that Kendra’s name and face are associated with helping people.”

A bill to extend Kendra’s Law five years has been introduced in the Assembly.

WAMC News Intern Nicholas Tantillo is completing a bachelor’s degree in journalism at SUNY New Paltz.

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