Va. House to Review Psychiatric Care Gaps
Hearings, Spurred by Massacre, Presage a Tide of Reform Efforts, Lawmakers Say

By Tim Craig and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 25, 2007

RICHMOND, May 24 -- The Virginia House of Delegates will hold hearings this summer to consider solutions to problems in the mental health system exposed after Seung Hui Cho's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.

The hearings in the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee are the first step in what lawmakers say will be a flurry of potential legislative reforms to the mental health system after Cho killed 32 students and faculty members and then himself April 16.

Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), the committee's chairman, said legislators want to review state funding of mental health services and the laws governing privacy, emergency custody orders and involuntary and voluntary commitments. The committee also plans to hear from private providers of mental health services and solicit suggestions from the public.

"We have to get a plan to make sure the system and processes don't break down again, so similar circumstances don't occur," Hamilton said.

He said the hearings, the first of which will be held June 18, will lay the groundwork for what could be a contentious debate in the General Assembly next year on mental health treatment and funding.

Although he has commissioned a separate investigation, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said Thursday he welcomes the legislative review.

"We are working toward the same goal," said Delacey Skinner, Kaine's communications director. "We all want to make sure we address any flaws or loopholes in the system that need to be addressed."

Cho's case underscores some of those flaws, officials have said. He was referred to the New River Valley Community Services Board in 2005 after Virginia Tech police said he had harassed two female students.

The board, the government mental health agency that serves Blacksburg, determined that Cho was "mentally ill and in need of hospitalization," according to court papers.

A day later, on Dec. 14, 2005, Paul M. Barnett, a special judge hearing Cho's case, decided that Cho was an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness and ordered him into involuntary outpatient treatment.

But three law enforcement sources familiar with Cho's medical records have said that Cho never received treatment. There was no follow-up from the community services board or the courts.

State law says that community services boards are responsible for setting up a treatment plan for mentally ill people released into the community for outpatient care. But Les Saltzberg, executive director of the New River Valley Community Services Board, said his agency did not create a treatment plan for Cho because the special justice did not tell the board of his order.

Saltzberg, who took over at New River last year, said a board representative used to be present for commitment hearings to help with treatment plans, but a lack of funding and resources stopped the practice several years ago.

Joe Painter, who said he presided over 15,000 mental health commitment hearings while serving as a special justice in Blacksburg from 1989 to 2000, dismissed as "naive" Saltzberg's contention that the board didn't know about Cho.

"The law requires them to set up the specific course of treatment," Painter said. "I want to know when and why they unlearned the law."

At a meeting today, Saltzberg said he and Barnett will seek to improve communication between the court and the agency.

"We're going to work with the special justice to figure out what the best way is to do this," Saltzberg said in an interview Thursday. "Based on our mutual cooperation, we'll figure out a way to make sure that nobody gets lost."

Hamilton said the legislative hearings will focus heavily on the role of community services boards.

But because the committee doesn't have subpoena power, Hamilton said it won't delve too deeply into the case of Cho, whose records are protected under privacy laws.

He said he will leave specific questions about Cho to the eight-member Tech Review Panel, which Kaine created to study the shooting and the state's response.

That review has been hampered by state and federal privacy laws that prevent Virginia Tech and providers of mental health services from releasing Cho's medical and academic records.

Cho's parents, as the executors of his estate, might be able to authorize the release of some records, but officials say they are out of the country.

Retired State Police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, chairman of the review panel, said the committee might have to seek a court order to get the information.

"We will do whatever we have to do to get those records, and if that means a court order, subpoena, whatever, then certainly we have to look at that," Massengill said.

Massengill said panel members are debating how far into Cho's past they need to go to get a better understanding of his illness.

"At the very least, we have to know what happened since his issues were identified at Virginia Tech in 2005," Massengill said.

"I would think to really get at these root causes, we may want to go back much farther than that."

Staff writer Brigid Schulte contributed to this report. Jenkins and Schulte reported from Washington.

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