County supervisors voted Oct. 14 to help fund a “crisis intervention team assessment center” in Warrenton intended to help free up police officers who otherwise need to supervise people who are undergoing a mental health crisis.
The program be operated by Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services; Fauquier Hospital will provide a space in its emergency department.
The one-year pilot program, scheduled to begin Jan. 1, is intended to help ease the burden on local law enforcement agencies in the wake of the years-long crisis in the state’s mental health hospital system. The program will be funded with $268,000 of the county’s allocation of federal stimulus funds.
The state’s eight mental health hospitals have experienced deteriorating conditions and “have struggled for years with understaffing combined with ‘dangerously’ high census levels,” according to reporting from Virginia Mercury. The situation reached a crisis point this summer when five of the state hospitals temporarily ceased accepting new patients altogether, the Mercury reported.
When there is not a bed available at a state hospital, people subject to temporary detention orders stemming from a mental health crisis are detained in a local emergency room instead, forcing local law enforcement agencies to commit an officer to supervise the patient. The pilot program will provide private security officers around the clock for that purpose, but only one person will be able to be detained in the space at any given time.
“I think the essence of the program that we’re doing in Fauquier is for us to take custody and relieve that burden on law enforcement because of the hospital bed crisis,” said RRCS Executive Director Jim LaGraffe.
After consulting with law enforcement and professionals from RRCS, a magistrate may issue an emergency custody order for a person undergoing a severe mental health crisis in the county, allowing that person to be taken into custody for their safety and the community’s safety; that person is then assessed. If the situation is serious enough, the magistrate may issue a temporary detention order for the individual, which allows that person to be involuntarily detained for up to 72 hours.
There was an average of 70 involuntary mental health assessments during each of the past three months in the Rappahannock-Rapidan region that includes Fauquier, with an average of 24 temporary detention orders issued each month.
In theory, the individual subject to a temporary detention order would be sent immediately to a state mental health hospital, where professionals can evaluate the individual more thoroughly and determine what further treatment is necessary.
But the acute shortage of available beds in state hospitals has disrupted this process, putting a burden on local law enforcement agencies. “The problem is, when there’s no hospital, we end up sitting in the emergency room with this person and the person is not getting any help,” explained Warrenton Police Chief Mike Kochis.
Not all temporary detention orders last for the full 72 hours, but many do, said Kochis. If one of his officers is required to sit in the emergency room for any amount of time with a person in a mental health crisis, that officer can’t be on the street performing other duties.
“As a small department, it’s taxing, having that officer sit in the emergency room with a person who has had a mental health crisis for three days,” he said. His department typically deals with about three or four of these situations per month, he explained. “That’s a lot for us.” And, he added, the person experiencing the crisis doesn’t get the treatment they need if no bed is available at a state hospital.
On that last point, the pilot program will only scratch the surface of the deeper issue, said Kochis. “It doesn’t solve the problem of folks ... getting to a mental health hospital, but it’s better than just sitting in the emergency room.”
LaGraffe acknowledge that, while individuals detained in the program will be assessed several times per day by RRCS staffers, the program doesn’t mean there will be any additional treatment resources locally.
Fauquier County Sheriff Bob Mosier said that the pilot program in Warrenton is a good short-term solution but expressed hope that a more holistic approach could be put in place on the local level.
Pointing out that about nine in 10 people who are sent to a state mental hospital are released within three days, he said that he hopes that more resources could be devoted locally to treating people where they live — not just detaining them. “There’s no reason we couldn’t be doing that right here,” Mosier said.
Reach Coy Ferrell at firstname.lastname@example.org