Grim Findings in Va. Tech Probe
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The state office charged with scrutinizing Virginia's mental health agencies issued a biting critique of the system yesterday, saying it is underfunded and falls short when evaluating whether people are a danger to themselves or others.
James W. Stewart III, inspector general for the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, issued his findings after a six-week investigation into Virginia Tech killer Seung Hui Cho's interaction with mental health professionals before his April 16 campus rampage.
The report was completed late Sunday and released yesterday to the panel reviewing the massacre, in which Cho, of Centreville, killed 32 students and faculty members before fatally shooting himself. The eight-member panel held its first Northern Virginia meeting yesterday and heard from relatives of the victims, some of whom demanded a representative on the panel.
In testimony before the panel, Stewart said it often takes more than a month for someone to receive court-ordered or voluntary counseling for a declared mental illness. Stewart attributed the lag in part to a lack of funding. According to the report, more than half of community mental health providers say they have less capacity today than they did a decade ago.
"The underlying factor here is the resources available at which to provide a full range of community mental health services are inadequate," Stewart told reporters after giving testimony at George Mason University. "We do not have an adequate enough range and comprehensiveness within that service system to assure we prevent crises and we intervene effectively during crises."
Relatives of Cho's victims, in often emotional remarks that caused others to leave the room in tears, called for tougher gun laws and questioned the panel's work, saying in a statement that they feel "ostracized." Some even said they want the power to edit the panel's final report.
The panel chairman, retired state police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, said he opposed adding a family member because he wants the panel to "be objective and not driven by emotions." Massengill's remarks infuriated family members, who have indicated that they might consider legal action if their demands are not met.
The tension underscores the troubles facing the panel, which Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) created to investigate the shooting.
The panel, which recently hired a New York law firm to help it navigate legal questions, is clearly frustrated by state and federal privacy laws that are limiting what panel members can uncover about Cho.
"We are really operating with our hands tied, blindfolded and maybe even gagged, and it is becoming increasingly frustrating," said panel member Diane Strickland, a retired Circuit Court judge in Roanoke.
Stewart, citing privacy laws, said his report avoided much of what he learned about Cho's case because under state law he cannot divulge that information.
But Stewart's report provides insight into the steady decline of Cho's mental condition during the fall of 2005.