Psychiatric Care Denied To Gunman, Attorney Says

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

In the three months before he fatally shot two Fairfax County police officers, Michael W. Kennedy and his parents tried numerous times to get him immediate psychiatric help, their attorney said. Four times, Kennedy was sent home without getting help, and two mental health facilities told them not to bother coming in at all.

On one occasion, Kennedy, 18, who by this time claimed he was talking to God and was threatening suicide, was voluntarily admitted to a mental health facility in Rockville. But after several hours, he left of his own accord and carjacked a vehicle to return home to Fairfax.

"This young man was crying out for help," said Richard F. MacDowell Jr., the attorney for Brian and Margaret Kennedy, Michael Kennedy's parents. "On at least five occasions, they sought mental health services and were turned away. I can't think of another case that would be this compelling as to how ineffective our mental health system has become."

Michael Kennedy's last contact with mental health professionals occurred May 4, four days before he carried seven loaded guns to the Sully District police station and opened fire, MacDowell said. Kennedy fatally shot Detective Vicky O. Armel and Officer Michael E. Garbarino before being shot to death by other officers.

MacDowell spoke on behalf of Kennedy's parents to express their frustration at a system that seemed unable or unwilling to help their son. MacDowell said Kennedy's mental condition was never diagnosed, except for "a generalized diagnosis of depression and then anxiety at the end. This was somebody who was obviously deeply troubled."

Despite Kennedy's mental problems, the parents did not remove their guns from their home because the weapons were kept in locked containers, MacDowell said. The Kennedys did not expect their son to break into them.

Police could not verify the family's version of events, because the Kennedys have not met with authorities in the investigation of the killings. MacDowell said he could not comment on the reasons for that.

Beginning in February, Kennedy was evaluated twice at the Woodburn Center for Community Mental Health in Annandale and twice at Prince William Hospital in Manassas but was turned away all four times, MacDowell said. He was not given any medication or a plan for treatment. Officials at those facilities said they could not discuss individual cases because of privacy laws.

Woodburn is part of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, with mental health professionals available 24 hours a day to evaluate people and, if necessary, recommend that they be hospitalized, even involuntarily. Prince William Hospital has its own psychiatric inpatient ward.

Experts said the refusal to treat Kennedy is far from surprising.

"Particularly here in Northern Virginia, it's so hard to get somebody in when they need psychiatric care," said Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington. She said the definition of who must be given immediate treatment -- a person who is in "imminent danger" of harming himself or others or is incapable of caring for himself -- is usually interpreted too strictly, often because facilities don't have room for anyone but the most obviously dangerous people.

Northern Virginia has lost about one-third of its private psychiatric beds in the past three years and more than half of its beds -- a decrease from 402 to 196 -- since 1990, Zdanowicz said. The one state mental hospital in the region, Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Fairfax, is "always full," Zdanowicz said.

"The people that desperately need care aren't getting help."

Kennedy's family knew he needed help and had him seeing a private therapist early this year, MacDowell said. But on Feb. 13, while home alone, the teenager shot the family dog. Kennedy told police and friends that he had been suicidal that day, then decided against killing himself but accidentally fired a gun and hit the dog.

MacDowell said police took Kennedy to the Woodburn center that day. After an evaluation, "they determined he was not in need of future services. They had been told that he was seeing a therapist" and advised that was sufficient, MacDowell said.

Kennedy returned to Woodburn with his parents on Easter Sunday, April 16, after he told them "he's got to be seen by somebody," MacDowell said. After a lengthy evaluation, MacDowell said Kennedy was told: "You're too smart to be here. You don't need to be here. Just go home. Here are four sleeping pills. Go see your private doctor."

The Kennedy family was not satisfied and returned to Woodburn the next day. MacDowell said a crisis intervention team met with Kennedy, determined that his family had insurance and found a bed for him at Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health Center in Rockville. He was voluntarily admitted the next day, April 18, but broke out a window later that evening and left. He told friends that he didn't like the way he was being treated. He then stole a car and drove back to Fairfax.

Euphia Hsu Smith, a spokeswoman for Potomac Ridge, said she could not discuss the specifics of Kennedy's case because of privacy laws. But she noted that "because we're a health-care facility, we're not a detention facility. We're not set up for detention, especially if someone is here voluntarily."

On April 24, MacDowell said, Kennedy's mother again tried to get her son help. She called Inova Fairfax and Dominion hospitals, both with limited numbers of psychiatric beds, and was told that there was no room, MacDowell said. She then contacted Prince William Hospital, which said that Kennedy should be brought to the emergency room.

"He's talking about cutting himself, he's suicidal and God talks to him," MacDowell said of Kennedy. "They say he's fine and give him 10 milligrams of Ambien," a sleeping pill, MacDowell said.

Donna Ballou, a spokeswoman for Prince William Hospital, said the hospital disagrees with MacDowell's claims but could not be more specific because of privacy laws.

By early May, Kennedy was talking about aliens, MacDowell said. Margaret Kennedy called Prince William Hospital on May 4 and took him back to the emergency room, in tears, MacDowell said.

MacDowell said the staff thought Kennedy was claiming mental problems to evade criminal charges. "The diagnosis is anxiety," MacDowell said. "And they let him go."

"It's astonishing," MacDowell said, "how the system has deteriorated to the point that a clearly troubled individual, such as Michael Kennedy, cannot receive inpatient services. Our mental health system in Virginia is essentially broken when the severely ill cannot receive vital and necessary services."

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