Changes to the system were long overdue

Published 8:20 pm Monday, December 30, 2013

When I arrived at the home of Lauren Samuels (not her real name) in late October, the first things that struck me were the chalk marks that circled and numbered the 16 dents in her front door.

The dents had been left by her 14-year-old son when she locked him out of the house to protect herself from one of his outbursts. She was later charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor for that act of self-defense.

Samuels’ story was the first of many I’ve heard since I started working on a series about the abysmal juvenile mental health treatment system in Virginia. I also interviewed another woman about her experiences with her son, who recently turned 18. I talked to police, the magistrate, local and state mental health treatment officials, lawmakers and more.

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After I started working on the series of stories, a tragedy took place in Bath County, where state Sen. Creigh Deeds was stabbed at his home by his 24-year-old son, who then shot and killed himself.

My series took on a new dimension after that happened. While my series focused on juveniles, young people with untreated mental problems grow up to become adults with mental problems, as the Deeds family’s situation illustrated.

Once the series of four stories started publishing two weeks ago, other folks with similar nightmare memories began to come out of the woodwork. They called my office and stopped me at meetings to tell me about their personal experiences, either with their own family members or what they have encountered through their jobs.

The mental health treatment system in Virginia has been broken for a long time. State officials insisted in answers to my questions that they have made improvements in recent years.

But sadly, the real improvements didn’t start until a tragedy happened to a rich lawmaker and made national headlines. As the women I interviewed for the story told me, the lack of attention to the everyday tragedies suffered by the common man made it seem like their problems didn’t matter.

The recommendations generated by the review of the situation ordered by the governor — imagine that happening after a disaster in your family or mine — have the potential to generate real change. Millions in additional funding can help extend the holding period allowed by emergency custody orders, create crisis centers and increase the number of beds available at mental hospitals.

It’s good that these changes are taking place now, but it’s tragic they didn’t happen 20 years ago. Thousands have paid the price.