Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine on Wednesday hailed passage of legislation that makes major changes to the state's mental health system, saying lawmakers responded to "the most direct lesson" from last year's mass shootings at Virginia Tech.
Just one week before the first anniversary of the shootings, Kaine ceremonially signed the mental health reforms and approved additional legislation dealing with campus security and firearms. All of the bills were prompted by the April 16 shootings at Tech, which left 32 people and the troubled gunman dead. The General Assembly passed more than 30 bills dealing with issues raised by the shootings.
"The soul-searching that we've done in the aftermath of last April has brought us together in a great way, a bipartisan way, to make some significant strides forward," Kaine said at a ceremony attended by Attorney General Bob McDonnell, lawmakers from both parties and the father of a Tech student who was injured in the shootings.
Kaine said he will make "a few technical changes" to identical comprehensive mental health reform bills (House Bill 499 and Senate Bill 246), and those changes will require approval from the General Assembly during its April 23 veto session. But the governor said the legislation will satisfy widespread demands for better standards and increased accountability in community-based mental health services. The new state budget also will include $41.7 million over two years to help implement the changes.
Kaine said the Tech shootings called attention to the need "to improve mental health services in Virginia and especially mental health services that are offered in the communities of our commonwealth."
The legislation broadens the standard the state uses to commit individuals to mental health treatment against their will and improves monitoring of people under outpatient treatment orders. The bills also extend the periods allowed for emergency custody and temporary detention orders and require representatives of local community services boards to participate in commitment hearings.
A commission created by the Virginia Supreme Court already had been examining changes to mental health commitment laws before last April, when troubled student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself on the Tech campus. Cho had a history of behavioral problems and had been ordered to get outpatient treatment by a Montgomery County special justice 16 months before the shootings. But no one made sure Cho complied.
"It's a terrible shame that it took something as terrible as Virginia Tech and the incident there to bring to light so many inadequacies in the mental health system," said Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin was seriously wounded in the shootings. "I'm sure many people were crying out about this for a long time and it didn't get the spotlight it deserved until this thing happened."
Kaine said lawmakers will track the effectiveness of the reforms and pursue further improvements to the system.
The reforms will take effect July 1, creating some anxiety for mental health providers who must implement the changes.
"We're not going to go from June 30, 2008, to July 1, 2008, and have all of that in place," said Victoria Cochran of Blacksburg, chairwoman of the state Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services Board. "We've got to put together an infrastructure that will last into the future."
It remains unclear how new funds for implementing the reforms will be distributed statewide among the 40 community services boards that provide local mental heath care. The Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services is working to divvy up the funds.
Tim Steller, executive director of Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, the board that serves the Roanoke Valley, said he was recently told it would be at least another three weeks before his agency knows what funds it may receive to meet the requirements of the new laws. Some mental health officials have worried that the $41.7 million might not go far enough.
"All of this funding sounds like it's a tremendous amount of money," Steller said. "But when you allocate it across the entire commonwealth, it doesn't represent that much of an increase."
The governor also signed bills Wednesday requiring courts to forward information about all involuntary mental health commitments to the state's central criminal records exchange, eliminating a loophole that allowed Cho to purchase the guns used in the shootings.
Because Cho was not sent to a mental health facility, information about his case had not been entered in the database used for background checks on gun buyers. The legislation allows no distinction between those sent to a mental health facility and those ordered to receive outpatient care
Kaine also signed legislation requiring colleges to develop crisis and emergency management plans, create campus "threat assessment teams" and implement notification systems to inform campus communities of emergencies. He noted that most state colleges have acted on their own to improve relationships with local police and first responders, mental health providers and victim services agencies in the past year.
Kaine had little to say Wednesday about ongoing negotiations between state lawyers and families of the Tech shooting victims over a settlement offer that could head off lawsuits against the state and university. An offer presented last month would provide families of deceased victims $100,000 each and set aside $800,000 to meet needs of wounded victims.
Kaine said negotiations have been "very productive" but insisted he will honor a confidentiality agreement made when the talks began. Terms of a settlement will be disclosed if a deal is reached, he said. "You're trying to be sensitive to family members and others, and many of them want to be able to have a dialogue of that kind and trade ideas back and forth and do it in a way that respects some degree of confidentiality," Kaine said.Staff writer Laurence Hammack contributed to this report.