By Tim Craig and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
"It became clear he was not the typical college student and exhibited behaviors far outside the norm," Stewart said in his testimony.
Cho's behavior included harassment of other students, and at least one person in his dorm asked to be moved to another building "to get away" from him, according to the report.
On Dec. 13, 2005,after a student complained about Cho, Virginia Tech police instructed Cho to stay away from that person. Later that day, Cho sent an instant message to his roommate saying that "he might as well kill himself," according to the report. The student told his father, who contacted campus police.
When Cho returned from taking an exam, police took him into emergency custody, although he said he was joking in the instant message. At the police station, a social worker evaluated Cho and determined that he was mentally ill and a danger to others.
Based on that evaluation, a magistrate sent Cho to St. Albans Behavioral Health Center in Christiansburg overnight for further examination. The next morning, a psychologist interviewed Cho for 15 minutes. Later that afternoon, Cho was released after a judge ordered that he receive outpatient treatmentat Virginia Tech's Cook Counseling Center. Cho agreed to the order.
The report indicates that the university counseling center was told that Cho had been ordered to receive outpatient treatment. But officials at the counseling center told Stewart that they do not receive such referrals, the report says.
The report does not say whether Cho received the follow-up care, but three sources have told The Washington Post that he did not.
The report recommends that Virginia officials consider giving health-care professionals more time and resources for initial screenings of the mentally ill. The report also suggests that local mental health agencies better monitor and follow up with people receiving counseling in the community.
Andrew Goddard, father of an injured student, Colin Goddard, told the panel that it was "incredibly disturbing and distasteful that an individual who brutalized the privacy of so many should have his privacy so doggedly preserved."
Goodard also criticized state and federal gun laws. "This awful tragedy was a direct result of the interaction between a deranged individual and two simple efficient and readily available killing machines," he said.
Holly Adamsof Springfield, mother of slain student Leslie Sherman, said family members want an outside specialist to review the panel's recommendations and findings before they are made public to make sure the report is tightly focused on the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
Thomas J. Fadoul Jr., a Vienna lawyer hired by the families, noted during a break in the hearing that the panel is headed by a retired state police superintendent and includes several members with close ties to law enforcement or government agencies.
"Here we have a state agency reviewing another state agency. This is the government watching other governments," Fadoul told reporters. "When you have a government watching the government you . . . have an inherent conflict of interest."
Adams said she was particularly distressed that several panel members said last month, before the investigation began, that they thought Virginia Tech police and other authorities responded to the shooting appropriately.
Massengill said the panel is committed to "uncovering the facts."