A state senator's return to Richmond less than two months after his son's suicide should provide the impetus for mental health improvements starting in the 2014 General Assembly session and beyond, Gov. Bob McDonnell said Tuesday.
The presence of Sen. Creigh Deeds at the 60-day session that begins Wednesday "will add an even greater sense of urgency" to the efforts, McDonnell told reporters after speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Task Force on Improving Mental Health Services and Crisis Response.
"Senator Deeds being here gives everybody a personal commitment," McDonnell said.
Gus Deeds stabbed his father multiple times before killing himself at their Bath County home. Gus Deeds had been released from an emergency custody order hours earlier after the local community services board said it was unable to locate an available psychiatric bed in the area within the six hours allotted by law.
The Republican governor, whose term ends Saturday, created the 37-member task force after the November death.
McDonnell, who defeated Deeds for governor in 2009 and for attorney general in 2005, called the senator "a very, very fine person" and said he can't imagine his heartbreak.
"I just want him to know we love him and he's part of the family," the outgoing governor said. Democrat Terry McAuliffe will be sworn in as Virginia's new governor on Saturday.
McDonnell urged the task force to work quickly so it can propose some changes in this year's legislative session. He said Virginia has a good mental health system, but "the goal should be to be 100 percent right 100 percent of the time." He said the panel should look at every aspect of the services, with a focus on crisis intervention.
Several bills already have been filed, among them a proposal by Deeds to extend the time for locating a psychiatric bed to 24 hours. Others would increase the time that a person could then be detained for psychiatric evaluation from the current 48 hours to 72 hours.
Deputy Attorney General Allyson Tysinger told the task force that Virginia's 48-hour maximum for holding someone under a temporary detention order is the shortest in the nation. Ninety percent of the states allow five days or more, she said.
Representatives of Virginia's police chiefs and sheriffs said transporting patients to mental health facilities is draining their resources. They also urged the panel to examine ways to get mentally ill people out of jails and into treatment facilities — a noble goal, according to outgoing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
"Our local jails have become our mental health institutions of last resort, and that's just wrong," said Cuccinelli, a member of the task force.
Rhonda VanLowe of Fairfax County agreed. She was appointed to the task force as a representative of families affected by mental illness and said the biggest fear of a parent is seeing a child go to jail.
"They don't belong there, they're not going to get the care there, and that's what keeps you up at night," she said.
By LARRY O'DELL, Associated Press
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