Wednesday, March 05, 2008

After Virginia Tech - much activity, little accomplishment

On Tuesday, the Virginia legislature sent a package of bills to the Governor containing its proposed changes to the state’s commitment laws. Although the end-result was essentially inevitable after a bill to establish a progressive assisted outpatient treatment system was shuttled off to a study committee, the Virginia Legislature made it official on Tuesday – there was much busy work in the wake of the tragedies at Blacksburg but nothing approaching rational treatment laws for the state.

House Bill 499, the chief bill of the package, reworks the present procedural system for outpatient commitment fairly well and offers a slight improvement to the eligibility standard but still leaves Virginia’s laws among the most restrictive of treatment in the country. Essentially, HB 499 will move Virginia law in this area from among the worst to just plain bad.

With the pressure created by the Blacksburg tragedies, the legislators in Richmond realistically had no choice but to (1) do away with the state’s “imminent danger” standard and (2) shore up of the outpatient commitment procedural provisions that let Seung-Hui Cho be placed on outpatient commitment and then just slip away from the treatment system.

HB 499 does both of these.

1. “Imminent danger” is changed to “the person will, in the near future, cause serious physical harm to himself or others as evidenced by recent behavior causing, attempting, or threatening harm.” That is more or less just substituting “near future” rather than “imminent” in exchange for the new requirement of recent acts, attempts or threats of violence.

2. HB 499 sets out and strengthens outpatient commitment procedures. This includes making sure that assigned treatment providers are involved in the outpatient commitment process and responsible for those placed under orders.

The only significant way in which HB 499 exceeds that “bare minimum” in the wake of Virginia Tech is in a modest but significant addition to the “substantially unable to care for oneself” prong of the present commitment standard.

HB 499 adds a new clause that allows the placement in treatment of a person over come by a severe mental illness who is substantially likely to “suffer serious harm due to substantial deterioration of his capacity to protect himself from harm or to provide for his basic human needs as evidenced by current circumstances.” Although still falling far short of the progressive commitment criteria in many other states, that at least is an improvement for Virginia legislators to justifiably claim as an accomplishment, albeit a small one.

Sadly, a small change is not good enough for Virginian’s with the most severe mental illnesses

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