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House Panel Moves to Ease Commitment Laws

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008

RICHMOND, Jan. 25 -- The Virginia House of Delegates took a major step toward strengthening the state's mental health laws Friday as a panel passed legislation that would ease the standard by which mentally ill people can be involuntarily committed to hospitals, an issue raised after the Virginia Tech shootings.

Virginia is among the five states with the country's toughest standards for involuntary commitment. Supporters said the proposed change would improve the ability of community health practitioners to treat mentally ill people.

Under state law, people can be committed against their will only if they pose an "imminent danger to self or others." The law does not define "imminent danger," and the standard is applied differently by magistrates and special justices from county to county.

The proposal approved by lawmakers on the Courts of Justice Committee would allow a magistrate or special justice to commit someone to treatment if there is "a substantial likelihood" that the person would cause "serious physical harm to himself or herself" in the near future or could "suffer serious harm due to substantial deterioration."

The action mirrors recommendations by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the state Supreme Court. Although there were minor disagreements over wording, the bill received bipartisan support. It will be scrutinized by the Appropriations Committee before a floor vote.

Also Friday, a Senate subcommittee took up more than a dozen bills, including ones that would change the commitment standard, that will probably be voted on next week.

"This is a massive overhaul," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), chairman of the Courts of Justice Committee, which unanimously approved the measure, alluding to the increased power the state would be given to get people into treatment. He said, though, that no single law will be able to catch everyone who needs help.

"No standard solves every problem," he said.

Democratic leaders said the new law would make the process of assessing mental health more efficient and comprehensive.

"We're trying to provide more clarity" to the standard, said Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "We're providing additional explanation, which will serve to broaden the law's application."

The system has come under scrutiny since 32 people were killed April 16 at Virginia Tech by a gunman with a history of psychiatric problems. The House bill follows recommendations of the independent commission that investigated the shootings by Seung Hui Cho, who killed himself after the rampage.

But advocates for people with mental illness wondered whether the proposed laws are as vague as the originals. At a Senate hearing on a nearly identical bill Friday, opponents raised concerns that the language in the bills could be open to interpretation.

And they said they feared that too many people will be brought in for hearings. "It's a massive deprivation of civil liberty, and it should only be done in limited circumstances," said Colleen Miller, executive director of the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy, an independent agency that focuses on people with disabilities.

The action was the first of many votes expected on mental health issues during the 60-day General Assembly session. Also Friday, delegates considered legislation that would tighten the rules that govern how mental health officials monitor people in outpatient treatment.

There is often confusion over how a person ordered by a court to receive services should be monitored. In Cho's case, there was confusion over who was to monitor him after he was ordered into treatment in December 2005. As a result, he never received it. The commission recommended that guidelines such as listing the consequences of not complying be adopted.

The Courts of Justice Committee is scheduled to vote on that measure Monday.

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