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Funding For Alternative Transportation For Mental Health Crises Uncertain

Alex Elliott's daughter visits with her brother Jimmy while in the hospital. Alex Elliott

In Virginia – most people experiencing a mental health crisis are transported to the hospital by law enforcement. That applies to children, too.

Jimmy is an 11-year-old who likes drawing, playing the ukulele and is even in a school play in Charlottesville.

He’s doing well today, but his mom Alex Elliott says a few years ago, he went through a really rough patch. “And my son was really incapable of articulating his emotions: he went into a really deep spiral of depression,” Elliott said.

He’d just been released from the hospital without a treatment plan – and a few days later, they wound up in the local community behavioral health center.

“He got very frustrated, very angry…and wasn’t able to control himself,” Elliott said.

Elliott says he knocked over a lamp, and tossed a footstool across the room. The staff decided to call the police.

After an 11-hour wait at UVA, Elliott says a group of sheriff’s deputies showed up to transport her son on the 70-mile trip from Charlottesville to Lynchburg. “These five burly sheriff’s officers come in with chains and shackles and guns and they took him,” Elliott said. “They put him in leg irons and handcuffs and they shackled him to a wheelchair and they told me we’ll see ya, nope you can’t come.”

That’s the kind of traumatic experience advocates and legislators hope to avoid with funding for what’s known as alternative transportation.

Instead of cops or sheriff’s deputies driving people sometimes hundreds of miles across the state to a mental health facility – those individuals would be transported in a different type of vehicle, more like a taxi.

The Senate budget currently includes $7 million over the biennium for it – and Ashley Everette with Voices for Virginia’s Children says it includes funding for the transport of children as well as adults. “You know, these children are in need of specialized mental health treatment and they shouldn’t have to be traumatized and criminalized during that process,” Everette said.

However, the House budget doesn’t include any funding for the program. Other states like North Carolina have implemented alternative transportation models, and there’s even been a pilot program in Southwest Virginia.

Mark Larsen is with the Mt. Rogers community mental health center in Wytheville where the program was piloted a few years ago. Over a 17-month period, Larsen says about 600 people were transported successfully. “They were given a bottle of water and a blanket, I'm sure they want that they could listen to a radio station of their choosing for the trip,” Larsen said. “They would talk with the driver for as much as they were comfortable doing so. And people had a much more relaxed and less restrained experience.”

Larsen says the program is now ready to go statewide, but is especially critical for rural areas.

The Virginia Sheriff’s Association has been pushing for alternative transportation for years. John Jones is Executive Director. “In some of the areas that are more rural, the deputies that are being deployed on a temporary detention order should be answering calls in their home community,” Jones said. “But because they’re being deployed on a TDO we might have to pull deputies out of bed to do the work and pay them overtime. It’s costing the local taxpayers a lot more than it should.”

Amy Woolard with the Legal Aid Justice Center say the benefits for children like Jimmy go far beyond cost. “We know about how their interactions with law enforcement can have lasting impressions,” Woolard said.

Elliott says her son’s incident drastically changed his perception of police. “And he was terrified – utterly terrified,” Elliott said. “He spent about a year having to crawl down into the well of the car every time we passed a police station or a police officer – I mean he was so scared every time he saw cops and he still has a little bit of paranoia.”

The whole situation was also traumatic for Elliott – who went to therapy herself afterwards. “Seeing a little kid sleeping – basically hogtied and chained – it’s a very violent image to see,” Elliott said. “So it affected me and it really pushed me to try to educate myself and talk to other parents. I mean I have gone through this now with so many random people who will just call me and they’ll be like: ‘my kid’s going to UVA and he’s crazy and he wants to kill himself.’ And I’m like: ‘I’ll be there in 10 minutes.’ Because people don’t have advocacy, they don’t know what to do.”

She hopes legislators will realize the value of alternative transportation for families like hers. “Because I really feel passionately that there is a very clear need for children and any mentally ill person to be treated with a certain level of dignity,” Elliott said.

That dignity, Elliott says, is hard to come by in a police car and handcuffs.