State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, recovering from multiple stab wounds and the death of his son, has served notice that he intends to push for change in a mental health system that doesn’t work for the people it’s supposed to help.
Deeds told a newspaper in Highland County on Monday that he faults the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board for what happened to his son, Austin C. “Gus” Deeds, who attacked his father last week and then killed himself 13 hours after the regional agency released him from an emergency custody order.
“I am alive for a reason, and I will work for change,” Deeds told The Recorder, based in Monterey. “I owe that to my precious son.”
His primary target is the Rockbridge Area CSB, one of 40 community services boards and behavioral health authorities that administer the state’s mental health system at the local and regional levels. The agencies are responsible for emergency services, such as screening and assessing people who may pose a danger to themselves or others.
“I have very strong opinions about the CSB, and feel like they are responsible,” Deeds is quoted as saying in the online story published Monday. “My life’s work now is to make sure other families don’t have to go through what we are living.”
Dennis A. Cropper, executive director of the community services board, based in Lexington, could not be reached for comment Monday, and other staff members at the agency said they could not comment.
Cropper told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Nov. 19, the day of the attack, that the agency released Gus Deeds because the statutory time limit had expired on the emergency custody order and the board could not find an appropriate bed in a psychiatric facility so he could be held for further evaluation and treatment.
The order, limited by state law to no more than six hours for detaining someone against his or her will, expired at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 18. State police say Gus Deeds attacked his father outside of their home in Millboro about 7:25 a.m. the next day, stabbing him multiple times in the head and upper body.
Gus Deeds shot himself and died at the scene, as his wounded father staggered to the nearby road for help. The senator was released from the University of Virginia Medical Center on Friday and said via Twitter, “Some wounds won’t heal.”
“I cry a lot,” Deeds told The Recorder. “I can’t focus now and talk to anyone.”
The incident has cast a harsh light on Virginia’s fragmented state mental health system, which relies on local boards and private providers to aid people in crisis. While Cropper said the agency tried to find a bed for young Deeds at as many as eight hospitals, multiple hospitals have told news outlets they had beds but weren’t contacted.
The state is conducting three investigations into what happened — by the Office of the State Inspector General; Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel; and the licensing division of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
“I don’t know what they’re going to yield,” said Mary Ann Bergeron, executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards.
“We are all heartsick about this,” Bergeron said Monday. “The investigations should give us insight into what happened and what to do about it in the future.”
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, predicted that Deeds would be at the forefront of confronting shortcomings in the mental health system in the General Assembly.
“It’s clear … he is saying that he will work on the issue when he’s back in Richmond,” he said.
Toscano stayed with Deeds’ family during his surgery and treatment at U.Va., but he said he has not talked to the senator about the events leading up to the attack.
“I do not know what actually happened,” he said.
But, Toscano said, “it’s very clear from what he said (to The Recorder) that he is very troubled by what happened. It sounds like he’s laying it at the doorstep of the CSB.”
Deeds told the newspaper that he had spoken to Virginia State Police, which is investigating the incident, and had given police complete access to medical records and property.
“I hope we can make a positive change as a result of this tragedy,” Deeds said. “I hope the justice we can get for my son is to force change in the delivery system for mental health services.”
Bath and Highland counties, in the Allegheny Highlands, “are at the end of the line” for mental health services, Deeds said.
“It seems inconvenient for those people to provide services here,” he said. “I have heard from people in Rockbridge (County) about lack of services, too, so I think there may be a bigger problem here.”
Toscano agreed that rural areas of Virginia have the hardest time getting help in mental health crises because of limited staff and long distances to magistrates and emergency clinicians.
Those factors make the clock tick faster on statutory deadlines that prevent mental health agencies from holding people indefinitely against their will. The law limits emergency custody orders to four hours, with the option of a two-hour extension by the local magistrate.
A temporary detention order can hold a person for an additional 48 hours for evaluation and treatment, but first the local agency must secure an appropriate bed for the person in a private or state psychiatric facility.
“It’s not just as simple as finding a bed,” Toscano said. “It’s about the services that go with the bed.”
Toscano said the General Assembly will face four big questions when it convenes in January:
• whether to extend the deadlines for emergency and temporary detention orders;
• how to ensure appropriate beds are available for people who meet the criteria for temporary detention;
• how to create crisis intervention teams in every part of the state; and
• how to pay for improving mental health services in Virginia.
“We’ve got some pretty big issues to tackle,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in trying to do something about it.”
“I am alive for a reason, and I will work for change. I owe that to my precious son.”