RICHMOND — In the aftermath of a personal tragedy, state Sen. Creigh Deeds came to Richmond in January on a mission to improve Virginia’s mental health system.
Deeds, D-Bath County, left the Capitol on Saturday after the General Assembly embraced what he described as “a good start.”
“I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot, but we have so much more to do,” he said.
Both houses of the assembly unanimously passed omnibus legislation (SB 260) to help ensure that psychiatric treatment beds are available to individuals in mental health emergencies. Lawmakers also approved a separate measure (SJ 47) that authorizes a four-year, comprehensive study of the mental health system to be overseen by a new joint legislative subcommittee.
Deeds championed both measures, drawing on his own painful experience trying to navigate a mental health system that he said he believes failed his son.
Deeds’ 24-year-old son, who had a history of mental illness, took his own life on Nov. 19. A day earlier, Austin “Gus” Deeds had been picked up on an emergency custody order in Bath County and later released because mental health workers could not find an available psychiatric bed before the order’s six-hour time limit expired. On the morning of Nov. 19, Gus Deeds stabbed his father multiple times before shooting himself to death.
Investigations and a legislative subcommittee hearing have exposed inefficiencies and miscommunications that contributed to an outcome that Deeds said was avoidable. Deeds said last week that an official with the Office of the State Inspector General informed him a clinician spent just a little more than three hours of the six-hour emergency custody period with his son, partly because the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board wasn’t notified until Deeds himself contacted the agency more than an hour after the order was executed.
“The CSB didn’t know that the paper had been served on him until I called them, and that was like an hour and 15 minutes after he had been picked up,” Deeds said. “That was a huge waste of time.”
Deeds’ omnibus legislation will extend the maximum duration of emergency custody orders to 12 hours and require state hospitals to accept individuals under temporary detention orders when private beds can’t be found. The bill will require the law enforcement agency that executes an emergency custody order to notify the local community services board, which serves as the public intake agency for mental health emergencies.
The bill also calls for a state registry of acute psychiatric treatment beds to provide real-time information for mental health workers. A registry that went online last week is updated daily rather than continuously, lawmakers said Saturday.
The bill extends the period that an individual can be held under temporary detention before a court hearing from 48 hours to 72 hours. And it allows a temporary detention order to be issued before a bed is located, a change the Deeds said “shifted the dynamic of this whole process.”
“We’ve done the best we could in this legislation to make sure that no single person slips through the cracks,” Deeds said.
Deeds’ original bill called for a 24-hour emergency custody period, a proposal that drew objections from representatives of sheriffs and police chiefs. The 12-hour time limit in the compromise bill mirrors a recommendation made in January by a gubernatorial task force.
Deeds was satisfied with the compromise, explaining that its provisions virtually assure that individuals in crisis won’t be “streeted” without getting treatment. The 12-hour emergency custody period could be reduced to eight hours in four years if the legislative study finds that the longer period is unnecessary.
“We basically took out all chances that they wouldn’t have a bed,” Deeds said. “I think we got as close to a hundred percent as possible.”
Lawmakers on Saturday also passed a series of House bills that contain the same provisions embedded in Deeds’ omnibus bill. The legislation was vetted by a subcommittee chaired by Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, who said he and his colleagues looked to Deeds for guidance as they fine-tuned their bills.
“He’s done an outstanding job on a subject that is obviously very sensitive and very emotional for him,” Cline said.
The House and Senate bills now go to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe identified mental health reform as a top priority as he took office in January, and a senior aide said Saturday that the governor is generally supportive of the legislation.
Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County, who helped shape the legislation, said the bill “will correct some of the inadequacies and some of the failings that we’ve had in our system.”
But, he added, “I just want to make sure everybody remembers this is not the end of what we need to do on this. It’s not all we need, but it’s certainly a great start.”
Deeds made the legislation a personal mission, but he reminded reporters Saturday that many others have experienced similar tragedies.
“It happened to me and I’m a state senator, so it gets a little press,” Deeds said. “But I heard from so many people all over Virginia, and really all over the country, who have been through the very same situation where people are killed or people are hurt. … I think with this legislation, we’ve made a huge step toward protecting people’s lives and reducing the number of tragedies that occur.”