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Serious problem gets overdue attention

Published 9:45pm Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A tragic incident last month in which the adult son of state Sen. Creigh Deeds stabbed his dad, then shot himself to death, has elected officials scrambling to reform Virginia’s mental-health system.

Outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell seeks $38.3 million “in new funding for mental health priorities” as part of his proposed 2015-16 budget. Incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe, reacting to McDonnell’s fiscal blueprint, said that “reforming Virginia’s mental health system must be a critical priority of this budget.”

It’s sad that it took a celebrity victim to get Richmond’s attention on a problem that has been tormenting ordinary families for years.

News Editor Tracy Agnew’s gripping series of stories on juvenile mental health continues on today’s front page, reminding us that future Austin Deedses are falling through the cracks of a porous system daily in Suffolk and communities like it all around the commonwealth. (If you missed the first two installments in our Sunday and Tuesday editions, you can catch up at www.suffolknewsherald.com.)

Agnew’s series powerfully describes the living hell that parents of mentally ill teens endure — and their elusive pursuit of protection from a juvenile mental health system that is ill equipped to deal with the problem.

It’s hard to entirely blame the agencies and, especially, the individual government employees involved. Police officers, who are the first line of defense, have limited options in dealing with juvenile offenders. Every domestic conflict has two sides, and police have the unenviable task of discerning the truth. A manipulative child can assault a parent, then claim child abuse if Mom protects herself. Conversely, abusive parents can pin the blame on an innocent kid when the cops show up to investigate.

The questions get stickier once a case is in the judicial system. Lines blur between treatment and detention. Judges carry a heavy burden when deciding whether to institutionalize a child, relying on the imperfect judgments of mental health professionals who don’t have enough beds to accommodate every single child who might be a threat to society.

What’s clear is that a tighter system, with more checks, balances and diagnostic options, is needed. More state money, as McDonnell and McAuliffe suggest, is probably part of the solution, but we know from experience that, where government is involved, money is not a cure-all.

At least the Deeds case brought a long-festering societal problem to the forefront. Awareness is a necessary first step when fixing complex problems.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.

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