New Virginia program to help ease mental health crisis transports for law enforcement

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MARION, Va. (WJHL) A multi-million dollar program aims to solve a critical problem.

A lack of mental health services, resulting in the need to transport patients in crisis long distances from home.

Virginia law requires a magistrate issuing a temporary detention order to specify a law enforcement agency that will provide transport for that person.

It is draining resources for police on patrol in southwest Virginia, and sometimes takes them hours away headquarters.

In 2016 through 2018, more than 25,000 mental health temporary detention orders (TDO) were placed each year in Virginia, with police officers completing 99% of them.

According to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the pilot project that was collected between January 1, 2016 and March 13, 2017 had 1,159 transports. Law enforcement transported 687 (59%) and steadfast transported 472 (41%).

“One of the challenges of transporting individuals that have TDOs is the distance. Obviously things are a little more spread out here in the Southwest and so these transports could take two, three or more hours,” Virginia Govorner Ralph Northam said.

In the state of Virginia, people who are under a temporary detention order are usually placed in a law enforcement vehicle; handcuffed as if they have committed a crime.

A new alternative transportation vehicle is supposed to change that.

Gov. Northam said, “To be able to do this in a more human way, in a vehicle that is unmarked as a person that is not in law enforcement, closed, that’s unarmed.. it’s a lot better way.”

He made a stop in Marion, Virginia to tour the new vehicle.

“It’s a real win-win for individuals with behavioral health issues. It’s a win for our law enforcement agents as well,” he said.

Right now, law enforcement takes on the task of transporting people under TDO, even though they are not officially trained for mental health crises.

“Once every three days, we have to take at least one officer, sometimes two off their patrol shift for up to the entire shift and it’s very difficult for an agency our size,” Chief John Claire of the Marion Police Department said.

He said the town of Marion has a “very consistant” amount of its population experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Last year, we had about 108 mental health contacts. It averages about one every three days. We’re required to not only interact with those folks, make sure they’re transported to a safe environment, but we also transport them to facilities all over the Commonwealth,” Chief Claire said.

G4S is a privately-owned security company that will provide the service.

Director of Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute (SwVMHI), Dr. Cynthia McClaskey said, “It’s staffed by a private company that does not wear police or sheriff uniform. They don’t carry guns, no weapons. It’s safe and secure for individuals who are held on a temporary detention order, and transported to either a state psychiatric hospital or a privare psychiatric hospital anywhere throughout Virginia.”

Dr. McClaskey said the program will begin in southwestern Virginia then expand througout the state.

“This hospital (Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute) admits about 900 people in temporary detention order. There are a total of about 25,000 people transported on temporary detention order, throughout the Commonwealth on any given year. So, if 50% of those people are transported in that way. Safely, humanely, with a recovery oriented outlook, that the outcomes willbe better for all,” Dr. McClaskey said.

Chief Claire said, “I think this is going to help but I really hope that legislators and our supporters in the Commonwealth go back to the beginning and talk about the role of government and the role of law enforcement in mental health and what the citizens need.”

The new transportation service is set to begin in early October.

Elligible drivers must pass a background check performed by G4S. Drivers must also receive 80 hours of classroom and pre-assignment training, which include lessons supporting and supervising individuals in crisis, human rights and Crisis Intervention Team training.

“So one of the key lapses that I think the Commonwealth has recognized is that there’s not a logistical integration in the mental health system. We have the hospitals that are playing a part. We have community service boards that are playing a part, and then we have final transfer facilities that are playing a part,” Chief Claire said. “It’s kind of that middle road that we don’t quite know how to get down. So, the alternate transportation, I am optimistic is going to provide a continued therapeutic environment for those people who are experiencing mental health crisis.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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