By Cathy Katsnelson
and Mark Katsnelson
Our son Gregory was 11 years old when he was murdered by a man with untreated mental illness.
Gregory was the kind of kid who lit up any room he walked into. He loved to bike and Rollerblade. He was kind and comical, and his laughter was infectious. As we watched him grow up, we could see the wonderful man he would become.
Gregory didn't get to become that man because Ronald Pituch had untreated paranoid schizophrenia. According to news reports, Pituch had been sick on and off since middle school.
Sometime before he spotted Gregory on his bicycle near our home, Pituch had stopped taking his medications. He clubbed his mother to death with a barbell and then drove around until he found Gregory. He used his bare hands and a kitchen knife to murder our son.
When Pituch went to trial, he told the court, "I believed I was possessed by the devil into thinking I was a god." He said he was doing better since his arrest because he was staying on his medications. "I know now that delusion is not true," he said.
For nearly seven years after Gregory's death, the New Jersey Legislature worked to create a law to deal with people so sick that they can't get help for themselves - a law that would get people like Pituch into treatment in their communities before they commit crimes. There were three public hearings on the matter, 20 advisory committee meetings, 20 task force meetings, and 60 hours of deliberation. In all, 200 people testified.
The result was a law authorizing what's known as "assisted outpatient treatment" or "involuntary outpatient commitment." In New Jersey, it's known as "Gregory's Law." It passed the Legislature unanimously and was supposed to take effect last month.
But Gov. Christie decided New Jersey can't afford to obey its own law.
Christie ignored all those years of studies and hearings. He dismissed the findings of state budget experts who said the costs of the law would be minimal and the savings would be great. He overlooked the report saying expensive inpatient commitments to the state's mental hospitals were likely to drop under the law. And he apparently didn't care that similar laws are already producing dramatic results in New York and elsewhere.
August was supposed to be the month when the era of court-ordered treatment for people like Ronald Pituch began in New Jersey - when other children like Gregory and other families like ours might be spared the senseless deaths and endless grief caused by crimes committed by people with mental illnesses that could be treated.
The governor didn't take this era away from us alone. He took it away from the rest of the public, which will be safer when people who are too ill to volunteer for treatment are getting medical help anyway. He took it away from taxpayers, who could be spending less on assisted outpatient treatment for the severely mentally ill than they're spending now to arrest, jail, and hospitalize these people. And he took it away from the people with severe mental illness themselves, whose lives would be dramatically improved by the law.
Instead of all this, the governor gave us hollow declarations. He claimed cost savings pulled from thin air at the last minute, not developed through detailed, thoughtful, deliberate work. He posed as a defender of the public interest, when in reality he had put us all at greater risk.
Christie needs to do his homework. He needs to do a fraction of the work that the Legislature and the governors who preceded him did - instead of acting out of ignorance and a conviction that he can unilaterally decide which laws take effect and which don't.
In the name of Gregory and on behalf of all the families like ours in New Jersey, we challenge Gov. Christie to have the decency to make way for a law that will save money and save lives.