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RICHMOND, Va. – Gov. Terry McAuliffe has signed an executive directive to create a center that will foster collaboration among government agencies in providing behavioral health and justice services for people with mental illnesses or other problems.

McAuliffe announced the establishment of the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice during the final meeting of the Governor’s Task Force for Improving Mental Health Services and Crisis Response.

“Nearly a year ago, I asked this task force to continue its work and develop bold ideas to help the commonwealth address the gaps in our behavioral health system,” McAuliffe said Monday.

“Today I am proud to sign this directive making the centerpiece of their recommendations a reality. Through the center, we will achieve better coordination of programs and services, state and local governments, and our public and private sectors. This will help ensure that Virginians with behavioral health needs in our justice system are treated with dignity and receive the health care services they desperately need.”

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services has been working closely with the task force over the last year, developing programs such as a psychiatric bed registry that collects and displays data on available space for individuals who are admitted to emergency rooms in extreme mental distress.

Specific groups within the task force also worked to prioritize high-risk areas of the population such as adolescents, inmates and homeless veterans.

The center’s mission is to achieve greater coordination of behavioral health and justice services across public and private sectors. It hopes to do this through:

  • Data collection and analytics
  • Evidence-based programs and practices
  • Education, outreach and training
  • Technical assistance and resource development

“The establishment of the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice is another step in the right direction that will help ensure better coordination of programs and services for years to come,” said Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who chairs the task force.

The task force sent 25 recommendations to the governor in October 2014, and the center was central to those proposals. The Joint Subcommittee on Mental Health Services in the Twenty-First Century, created by the General Assembly in 2014, also endorsed the center as a priority.

The subcommittee was chaired by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who experienced a family crisis that focused the state’s attention on mental health services. In 2013, Deeds’ son, Gus, who struggled with bipolar disorder, attached his father with a knife and then committed suicide. Deeds said that before the incident, he tried to have his son admitted to a psychiatric hospital but was told no beds were available.

“Too often, when mental illness and law enforcement are mentioned in the same breath, it is in the context of a tragic situation,” said Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel. “Establishment of this Center for Behavioral Health and Justice shows a formal commitment to change that perception and to change outcomes for Virginians.”

Brian Moran, Virginian’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, agreed.

“The center is a statewide means to enhance collaboration across the criminal justice and behavioral health systems,” Moran said.

“It will provide a one-stop shop for access to data, information about evidence-based programs and technical assistance, decreasing inappropriate incarceration, enhancing public safety and reducing stigma using sound data driven decision making.”

McAuliffe’s directive requires an Executive Leadership Council to develop an organizational structure and implementation plan for the center by July 1.

The leadership council will include the deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security; the deputy secretary of health and human resources; the commissioners of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and the Department of Health; and the directors of the departments of Corrections, Criminal Justice Services, Juvenile Justice and Medical Assistance Services.

By Margo Maier/Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of the VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.