Nine years ago this month, a Marlton couple lost their 11-year-old son and their innocence, due to a random murder at the hands of a man with a history of mental illness, violence and noncompliance with prescribed medical treatments.
Today, after a nearly decade-long effort to enact and fund state legislation designed to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future, Cathy and Mark Katsnelson have finally won their legal battle—but they are still coming to terms with their loss.
Signed in August 2009 and written into New Jersey’s budget for the first time this July, Gregory’s Law clears the way for court-ordered, involuntary outpatient treatment for severely mentally ill people.
Cathy Katsnelson says it was the only acceptable outcome. “I was driven to see this through to its conclusion,” she says. “For us, it was about ensuring that no other family would have to go through what we have had to go through. My feeling is that if even one loss of life were to be prevented by Gregory’s Law, it would all be worth the struggle to have it enacted.”
But it’s a bittersweet victory for the family: after all, the pain is still fresh nine years after the day when a mentally ill Medford man crossed paths with their son Gregory in the Kings Grant development where they live.
That Thursday afternoon, the popular seventh-grader had finished his homework and was biking along a wooded trail on his way to meet up with some friends. Instead, less than a mile from his home, the youngster was confronted by 26-year-old Ronald Pituch, who had just fled his Medford neighborhood after killing his mother following an argument about a pack of cigarettes.
Gregory became Pituch’s second murder victim that day.
Pituch, as the public soon learned, had a long history of mental illness. Diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, he reportedly had a violent history and had been noncompliant with his medications. Yet, his family was able to do little about it, having no recourse to force him into mandated treatment.
“Knowing that his family had tried to get him help, but that he had refused, made our pain harder to bear,” Cathy says. “Knowing that what happened to our son could have possibly been prevented was very difficult to deal with.”
The Katsnelsons learned that, under the standing New Jersey state law, people deemed a danger to themselves or others could refuse treatment. In fact, they discovered that New Jersey was one of only eight states in the U.S. that didn’t have any legal process regarding involuntary treatment for mental illness.
“The fact that there was no process for taking a deeper look at a person who clearly was not in their right mind was truly mind-boggling to us,” Mark Katsnelson says.
So, the couple—who have another son, Aaron—began researching mental illness, and connected with a nonprofit organization, The Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va. The Treatment Advocacy Center had taken a lead role in the 1999 push to pass New York’s Kendra’s Law, legislation that allows courts to order individuals with brain disorders to comply with treatment while living in the community. Named in honor of a young woman who was pushed to her death in the subway by a mentally ill man, Kendra’s Law became a model for Gregory’s Law.
“The important thing to remember is that these laws protect not only people in the community, but also the mentally ill person themselves,” Mark says, explaining why he and his wife pushed so fervently for New Jersey’s own Involuntary Outpatient Care (IOC) law to take effect. “Often, people with certain mental illnesses don’t recognize that they need help, so they don’t see any need for treatment. These IOC laws enable their family members to make sure they get the treatment they need to be safe—and to keep others safe as well.”
As Cathy explains, it’s not uncommon for severely mentally ill people to reject treatment or cease taking medications. Sadly, statistics show that the severely mentally ill who do not receive treatment often commit suicide, end up in jail, become homeless or, in rare occasions, become involved in acts of violence, as Ronald Pituch did.
“So many families and caregivers have had to stand by and watch their loved one or their patients deteriorate as a result of this loophole in the New Jersey law,” she says. “There clearly needed to be another way.”
Gregory’s Law—like Kendra’s Law—allows individuals to be ordered into treatment without ordering them into a hospital. It is a less restrictive, less expensive, more humane form of “commitment” than mandated inpatient care. Cathy adds, “It can also stop the cycle of [mentally ill people] coming to an inpatient hospital setting in crisis, and then being discharged without any mandate for follow-up—and then having to go through it all again when there’s another crisis.” Studies of Kendra’s Law completed by the New York Office of Mental Health and by an independent research team found that patients who had received outpatient treatment under the law’s guidelines experienced drastically reduced rates of homelessness, hospitalization, arrest, incarceration, suicide and drug abuse.
Introduced in 2003, Gregory’s Law went through an arduous approval process, Cathy recalls: three public hearings, 20 advisory committee meetings, 20 task force meetings and 60 hours of deliberation. In all, 200 people testified about the proposal before it was signed into law by then-Gov. Jon Corzine. It was to be implemented over three years—in seven of New Jersey’s 21 counties per year— beginning in August 2010.
But then the unexpected happened: Gov. Chris Christie, who took office in January 2010, stalled implementation indefinitely, citing budgetary concerns. For the Katsnelsons, it was a devastating blow.
“How can you pick and choose which laws to enforce?” Mark asks. “It was outrageous.”
After nearly two years, it seemed that Gregory’s Law had been all but forgotten, until this July when the couple finally received confirmation that the New Jersey Department of Health & Human Services would set aside $2 million from the recently signed budget to implement the first phase of the law.
Today, the Katsnelsons’ home still has many remembrances of Gregory. There are the framed school photos of the smiling boy in the hallway. There’s the collage of pictures students from his school made shortly after he died. And the family now offers a scholarship through their website, RememberGregory.com, that is presented annually to a Marlton Middle School eighth-grader selected by his or her peers and recognized as making a positive impact in others’ lives.
“Gregory was an amazing child,” Mark says. “He was really special. Teachers were afraid when he raised his hand, because they never knew what kind of question or comment might be made. He was very bright, and a born leader.”
Cathy says that the years since his death have not been easy, but that the family has been uplifted by “an amazing circle of support.”
“It’s been a very difficult journey, and not one I would wish on anyone,” she says. “I’m just grateful we have been able to help make something positive happen after something so tragic.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (October, 2011).
For more info on South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To subscribe to South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To advertise in South Jersey Magazine, click here.