On the day I met him, he was all smiles and excited energy.
He was not a boy who looked like he wanted to kill himself.
The 10-year-old who attends an Arlington County public school has mornings in which he talks for hours about not wanting to live, and on those days, his mother knows to keep him home and close to her. She knows what medications he needs and what activities best calm his anxiety.
But when he was 8, and not yet diagnosed with autism and bipolar disorder, she knew none of that. She knew only that late one night, as her two younger children slept, her son looked terrified and spoke of wanting to hurt himself and others.
“Don’t touch me or I’ll punch you!” he yelled. “I’m going to grab a knife.”
She saw no way to safely get him to a hospital, and didn’t know where else to turn, and so she dialed 911. Soon, six police officers and two medics crowded into her living room as their vehicles lined the street outside, flashing red and blue. Her son grew more agitated. She grew more anxious. And her husband spoke to a psychiatrist over the phone about their limited options.
That night, the family learned two things: the hospital closest to them, Virginia Hospital Center, was not capable of accepting pediatric psychiatric cases and, if possible, the police should be called in those situations as a last resort because no matter how well they handle the situation and how kind they try to be, their presence can further agitate children in mental health crises.
“If a cop shows up, there is no way to convince a kid you are not in trouble,” the mother of the boy said.
I am not identifying the woman or her son here by name because they have enough to worry about without adding to their concerns the ramifications of future Google searches. But I am telling you about them because their situation speaks to an important issue that is before the Arlington County Board and came up at its meeting Saturday.
As the board considers whether to approve Virginia Hospital Center’s expansion plans — which are part of a land-swap agreement — parents and educators have asked the board to demand, as a condition of the deal, that the hospital fund two clinicians for the Children’s Regional Crisis Response program.
The program, known as CR2, provides services to children experiencing mental health and substance abuse crises throughout Northern Virginia, responding to them as they occur and then providing follow-up care for the families for up to 45 days. This means if a child starts having a panic attack in the school gym or cutting herself in the bathroom, administrators can call a clinician to come and calm the situation instead of a police officer who will, just by nature of his uniform and position, draw more attention.
At least, that is what is supposed to happen. It doesn’t always. A lack of staffing for the state-funded program, which has bilingual counselors and does not charge families for its services, has resulted in nearly 1 in 4 callers being turned away.
“We’ve had educators who have used it and had great experiences,” Naomi Verdugo, who runs a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group in Northern Virginia, said. “And we have had other educators who have stopped calling because they say, ‘I called three times and they could never come.’ ”
Verdugo is among the residents who have been writing letters and meeting with county officials for months in hope of persuading the board to demand the community hospital set aside $200,000 a year for the next five years for the clinicians.
The group initially planned to ask that the hospital add psychiatric beds for children, but they settled on the less costly request.
“This is nothing for them,” Michelle Best, an Arlington mother of three, said of the expense to the hospital. “And it would have such a profound impact on this county’s kids.”
She created a NAMI support group for parents of school-aged children after attending a meeting filled with parents whose grown children were living on the streets or in jail. At the time, one of her children had just received a mental health diagnosis and wasn’t yet out of elementary school.
“Is this where we’re going?” Best recalled thinking at the time. “How do I not go down that path?”
Beyond the residents who have contacted the board directly about including the clinician funding in the deal — which involves the county giving the hospital a large parcel of land near its current campus to build a new garage and outpatient facility — letters in support of it have come from the school board, the Special Education Parent Teacher Association and several community organizations.
The Arlington Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter urging the county to approve the site plan “as submitted” and warning about the costs of further delays.
On Saturday, in a unanimous vote, the board decided to defer consideration of the hospital’s expansion plans to its December meeting. The decision followed hours of public testimony.
Requesting that the hospital help fund two clinicians a year for a program that already exists will not require a redrawing of plans or any environmental study that would greatly disrupt the construction timeline. It is an easy ask. More than that, it is a critical one that is in the interest of both the hospital, where many of these children were born and will seek services throughout their lifetime, and the county, where they now live and attend school.
County officials and the hospital can try to work together now to give these children the help their parents and their educators say they desperately need, or they can wait, and we will all pay later. Because the hospital is not the only thing that will grow bigger with time — so will these children’s needs if they go unaddressed.
The mother of the boy who loves origami is a former Arlington teacher with a college education and still, she said, she had no idea what to do that night her 8-year-old was suicidal and scared.
“I’ll never be okay because of that experience,” she said. “It was life-altering in horrific ways for our family.”
She finally calmed her son down enough to convince the police to leave. The next morning, she had planned to take the boy to a hospital but was forced to wait two weeks before she could get him into one with a pediatric psychiatric unit and an open bed. When she finally did, it was Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Maryland more than an hour away.
On the drive there, just a half-mile from their home, the family passed Virginia Hospital Center.