General Assembly Report by Rob Bell
Last week, a compromise was reached between the Virginia House of Delegates, the Virginia Senate and Gov. Kaine’s office to reform Virginia’s mental-commitment laws. The new laws will constitute the most sweeping reforms of mental commitment in Virginia in 30 years. I authored several bills to address aspects of this issue and was chairman of the mental-health subcommittee, so I had the privilege of helping craft the compromise.
Involuntary commitment occurs when a person needs mental-health care, but is unwilling or unable to get it voluntarily. This year, our goal was to improve the overall system and ensure that a tragedy like Virginia Tech not happen again, but to avoid unintentionally damaging the ability of Virginians to voluntarily seek care themselves.
The most troubling aspect, about what happened in Blacksburg, was that Mr. Cho had in fact been identified as having problems, and a court had ordered him to receive outpatient care. However, he did not go to care, and there was never any followup on his case.
The new law will address this problem by specifically ordering the local community-service board to attend any commitment hearing. In the event that a commitment is authorized, the law specifies which agency will follow the case and requires the agency to immediately report back to the court if the mentally ill person materially disobeys the court’s treatment orders. With clear lines of responsibility, it should be much harder for someone like Mr. Cho to fall “between the cracks.”
The new laws also do the following:
– Revised commitment standard, replacing “imminent danger” with “substantial likelihood of serious bodily harm.”
– Additional information, including past medical history, can be considered at commitment hearing.
– Records can be more easily shared among the agencies delivering services, including law enforcement.
– Prohibits those who were involuntarily committed from possessing firearms.
– Requires public universities to notify parents of students who are danger to themselves or others, unless notice will itself damage student.
The bills will now be sent to Gov. Kaine for his review. Given his involvement in the process, except for technical editing, I expect he will sign the bills into law this spring.
If you are interested in these or any other bills, they can be found at http://legis.state.va.us. I can be reached at the General Assembly Building, Post Office Box 406, Richmond, Va. 23218 – 804.698.1058. [email protected].
Rob Bell represents the 58th House District in the Virginia General Assembly.