Task Force Unveils New Approach to Mentally Ill

Article excerpt

After Norma Piazza's son shot and killed his dad and his brother during a psychotic episode in 1996 in Aurora Township, she says she had just one hope.

"I hope something good comes out of this," Piazza recalls telling a friend.

On Tuesday, that wish may have come true, as a Kane County task force announced a new process to deal with people like her son, Gerald, who are mentally ill but have refused treatment as their condition deteriorated.

Piazza said she hopes the new strategy to help mentally ill people before it's too late "is that something good."

The new process, or protocol - the first of its kind in Illinois and one of few in the nation - is an agreement among police, prosecutors, courts and health-care providers in Kane County aimed at more effectively dealing with people like Gerald Piazza.

A key goal is to improve communication between the groups to identify mentally ill people earlier if they enter the criminal justice system, and to figure out how to set them down the right path.

The plan also stresses so-called "advance directives," which allow stable mentally ill people to authorize involuntary treatment if they should ever become unreasonable or go off of their medication - as Gerald Piazza did before killing his father and brother.

Theoretically, the process announced Tuesday could start being used immediately. But realistically, many of the steps, such as police training, will need funding and specific plans about how to implement them.

The Kane County Mental Health Task Force, which drew up the plans, now will meet to come up with details about how to move forward.

The strategy was created over the last two years by the group, which is made up of representatives of the various agencies who were brought together in the wake of the Piazza family's tragedy.

After he was arrested and charged with murder, Gerald Piazza was found not guilty by reason of insanity and now is confined at the Elgin Mental Health Center. He may be hospitalized for the rest of his life.

Although the case was the motivation behind the creation of the new process, task force members could not say whether it would have saved Eugene or James Piazza's lives had it been in place before 1996.

Jim McNish, the task force coordinator and a friend of the Piazzas, said the extensive coordination agreed to in the protocol makes it one of the first in the nation and first of its kind in Illinois.

It is also indicative of a major shift nationwide in how communities deal with the mentally ill - a major issue over the last four decades as states place more mentally ill people into outpatient care instead of state mental health hospitals. …