Deeds evokes memory of son, as mental health bill advances - NBC12.com - Richmond, VA News

Deeds evokes memory of son, as mental health bill advances

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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -

Sen. Creigh Deeds received an early yes vote for his comprehensive mental health bill Wednesday, with a signature proposal extending emergency custody orders from six to 24 hours.

The Senate Education and Health Subcommittee on Mental Health voted 3-2 to advance the bill, after Deeds delivered emotional testimony recalling his son's death.

"I can't fix what happened," Deeds said. "What I can do … My motivation was to make sure situations like that were less likely to occur in the future."

Mental health authorities released Austin "Gus" Deeds from emergency custody last November, after the six hour time limit for the order expired. Medical professionals were unable to find an available psychiatric bed for Deeds' son within the six hour timeframe.

The Senator's mission for the current session is to ensure that no one is abandoned by Virginia's mental health system. But his bill has run into problems. Senators debating the bill have been torn between helping a friend's remarkable return to the General Assembly, and concerns raised by civil rights advocates and sheriffs' departments.

Goochland Sheriff James Agnew testified that not all sheriffs' departments can hold people in need of mental care for an entire day. Wednesday, Deeds said he understands the strain deputies encounter, in order to help people like his son.

"[A deputy] picks up my son, and then, potentially, after sitting with my son for six hours, has another three hour trip to a hospital, and then three hours back," Deeds said. "I mean, I understand that problem. It has to be addressed."

The ACLU has also raised concerns that emergency custody orders could harm people, if potential patients are kept in jail cells for up to 24 hours.

"We need to be sure that if the ECO is extended, to a longer period of time, the person is going to be in the proper environment," said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU. "We're not extending the time they sit in the back office of a sheriff's office, or the back of a cruiser."

According to Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel, Virginians could pay up to $5 million annually in law enforcement costs, if the ECO time limit is extended to 24 hours.

Deeds' bill also establishes a mandate for a real-time registry of all available psychiatric beds across Virginia. The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services has promised to have a system ready in March – a claim that has Deeds unconvinced.

"That's something that they've been talking about, and promised for a couple of years," Deeds said.

The proposals now face two committee votes before heading to the full Senate.

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