Deeds returns to Richmond determined to reform mental health system

State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, determined to rebound from a personal tragedy that left him gravely injured and his son lost to suicide, returns to the Capitol this week on a mission to fix the state’s mental health system.

Deeds (D-Bath) has proposed two bills intended to address what went horribly wrong in November, when his 24-year-old son, Austin, known as “Gus,” stabbed the senator and then fatally shot himself.

The day before, Austin Deeds had undergone a psychiatric evaluation, and a magistrate judge issued an emergency custody order to allow mental health officials to evaluate him. But Deeds returned to the family’s Bath County home that evening because, mental health officials said, no psychiatric bed could be located before the order expired. Officials from three area hospitals later said they had beds but were never contacted.

One of Creigh Deeds’s bills, SB 260, would extend the period of time that authorities can hold a person under an emergency custody to 24 hours, up from the current maximum of six. The other, SB 263, calls for establishing a registry that would provide real-time information on available beds in public and private psychiatric facilities. The state has spent several years working on such a registry, which it expects to be fully implemented in March.

Deeds also proposed a bill, SB 287, that would make it a felony to provide a firearm to someone who is prohibited from possessing one. It is not clear if that bill has any connection to the tragedy, however. Police have not disclosed how Austin Deeds obtained the gun with which he shot himself.

Creigh Deeds, who was the Democratic nominee for governor four years ago, could not be reached for comment Monday. His office said he was in transit to Richmond.

Deeds has not spoken publicly since his son’s death, but in a brief e-mail exchange with his local newspaper in November, he said that the board that administers mental health services in his community was “responsible” for his son’s death.

His return to Richmond is expected to be a gut-wrenching reminder of the tragedy for General Assembly colleagues, many of whom have called for mental health reform in response to it.

“We need to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future,” said Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), referring to cases in which mentally ill people who are the subject of court orders are told they are free to go because no bed can be located.

Outgoing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who beat Deeds by a landslide in the gubernatorial race in 2009, has included more than $38 million in his two-year, $96 billion budget proposal to improve emergency mental health treatment.

McDonnell’s plan calls for increasing psychiatric bed capacity and expanding the availability of crisis centers where someone can be held safely for an evaluation. McDonnell’s plan also includes extending the time that someone could be held under an emergency custody order — but by two hours, far less than what Deeds has recommended.

In his e-mail to the Recorder newspaper, Deeds said that he would make addressing what led up to his son’s death his “life’s work.”

He singled out the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board, which administers mental health and substance abuse services, for blame. An official with the board initially said no hospital beds could be found for Austin Deeds. After area hospitals disputed that account, officials with the board declined to discuss what happened.

“I cry a lot. I can’t focus now and talk to anyone,” Creigh Deeds said in an exchange of e-mails with the paper’s publisher and a reporter who has covered him for many years. “I have very strong opinions about the CSB [community services board], and feel like they are responsible. My life’s work now is to make sure other families don’t have to go through what we are living.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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