Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 06:41 AM
More of these complicated and obscure legal and enforcement procedures which leave pretty much every theoretically responsible party with a good reason for why they didn't do anything...
Cho Didn't Get Court-Ordered Treatment
By Brigid Schulte and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post, May 7
Seung-Hui Cho never received the treatment ordered by a judge who declared him dangerously mentally ill less than two years before his rampage at Virginia Tech, law enforcement officials said, exposing flaws in Virginia's labyrinthine mental health system, including confusion about the law, spotty enforcement and inadequate funding.
Neither the court, the university nor community services officials followed up on the judge's order, according to dozens of interviews. Cho never got the treatment, according to authorities who have seen his medical files. And although state law says the community services board should have made sure Cho got help, a board official said that was "news to us."
It is impossible to know if the treatment, ordered in December 2005, would have prevented the massacre last month, which left 32 students and faculty dead before Cho killed himself. But interviews with state and university officials, lawmakers, special justices, attorneys, advocates and mental health agencies across the state made clear that what happened with Cho is not unusual in cases of "involuntary outpatient commitment" -- Virginia's name for the kind of order issued by Cho's judge. Cho, they said, slipped through a porous mental health system that suffers from muddled, seldom-enforced laws and inconsistent practices. Special justices who oversee hearings such as the one for Cho said they know that some people they have ordered into treatment have not gotten it. They find out when the person "does something crazy again," in the words of one justice -- when they are brought back into court because they are considered in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.
"The system doesn't work well," said Tom Diggs, executive director of the Commission on Mental Health Law Reform, which has been studying the state mental health system and will report to the General Assembly next year. Involuntary outpatient commitments are relatively uncommon in Virginia, officials said, because those in the system know they are not enforced. They are almost an act of faith.
New River Valley's Mike Wade maintained that the community services board's responsibility ended [with the temporary detention order]. "Unless, out of the commitment hearing, the judge issued outpatient treatment specific to our agency, that's where it ends with us," said Wade, the board's community liaison. "Since we weren't named the provider of that outpatient treatment, we weren't involved in the case."
Virginia law says community services boards -- the local agencies responsible for a range of mental health services -- "shall recommend a specific course of treatment and programs" for people such as Cho who are ordered to receive outpatient treatment. The law also says these boards "shall monitor the person's compliance." When read those portions of the statute, Wade said, "That's news to us."
A day later, on Dec. 14, 2005, Paul M. Barnett, the special judge, decided that Cho was an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness and ordered him into involuntary outpatient treatment. It is a practice that Terry W. Teel, Cho's court-appointed lawyer and a special judge himself, said they use "all the time" in Blacksburg. Special justices such as Barnett are lawyers with some expertise and training who are appointed by the jurisdiction's chief judge. Teel said he does not remember Cho or the details of his case. But he said Cho most likely would have been ordered to seek treatment at Virginia Tech's Cook Counseling Center. "I don't remember 100% if that's where he was directed," Teel said. "But nine times out of 10, that's where he would be." And there, he said, ended the court's responsibility. The court doesn't follow up, he said. "We have no authority."
Virginia Tech mental health officials declined to discuss Cho's case because of privacy laws. But they said they are never informed when a person is referred to their facilities by the court. "When a court gives a mandatory order that someone get outpatient treatment, that order is to the individual, not an agency," said Christopher Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center. The one responsible for ensuring that the mentally ill person receives help in these sorts of cases, he said, is the mentally ill person. "I've never seen someone delivered to me with an order that says, 'This person has been discharged; he's now your responsibility.' That doesn't happen."
Community service boards saw 115,000 mentally ill people in Virginia in 2005, at a cost of $127 million. Virginia is one of only eight states in the country to require that people be an "imminent" danger to themselves or others before they can even be brought before a judge. Advocates argue that that is such a high standard that only the most dangerous cases are considered and involuntary hospitalization is usually required. When involuntary outpatient treatment is ordered, officials say they often have no idea what happens to the mentally ill person once they leave the courtroom.
Tom Geib, director of Prince William's Community Services Board, who also serves on the Mental Health Law Reform Commission Task Force studying outpatient commitment, blames the lack of follow-up on a lack of resources. Caseworkers at his agency may make calls or write letters if someone ordered into involuntary outpatient treatment doesn't show up for appointments. "But in terms of going out and trying to find them, we don't have the resources to do that," he said.
Mary Ann Bergeron, head of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards, which represents the 40 agencies within the state, said the boards are responsible for a person committed to outpatient care only "if he seeks treatment. But we can't give him treatment if he refuses it."
But advocates and some special justices disagree. "The services board job is not to say, 'We tried, and they don't want treatment.' Their job is to report back to the court," said Mark Bodner, a special justice in Fairfax County. He said that in his six-year tenure, that has happened only once.