A new $7 million contract to provide mental health transports in Virginia may provide some relief for local law enforcement agencies currently driving patients across the state.
The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) said Tuesday that it intends to award G4S a two-year contract, with an option for extension, for the statewide provision of transportation services for people experiencing a mental health crisis who are under a temporary detention order [TDO].
Alternative transportation is expected to change how children and adults under a court-directed TDO are transported from the evaluation site to inpatient psychiatric treatment.
Currently, most individuals who are being transported to inpatient treatment are placed in a law enforcement vehicle and may be handcuffed even though they have committed no crime. Many times, law enforcement officers transport patients across the state to the nearest available inpatient treatment location, which can strain personnel and budgets.
“I hope it works,” Abingdon Police Chief Tony Sullivan, who has been vocal about mental health transports in Virginia, said Tuesday.
The police chief has drawn attention to the issue for two reasons, he said, to stop criminalizing the mental health process by using police as armed mental health workers and to keep officers on patrol in their home jurisdictions.
Sullivan noted that the Region 3 District of Virginia, which includes Southwest Virginia, is part of the new program.
“This is probably the most challenging region because of its size and the sparsely located mental health facilities,” Sullivan said.
The chief added that he is anxious to see the outcome of the new program.
“I pray that this succeeds for the sake of those in need of mental health services and for the communities who have suffered because of reduced police coverage related to mental health transports,” Sullivan said.
The Wise County Sheriff’s Office is another local agency often affected by mental health transports.
“It is very early in the process, and obviously has not affected us yet, but when our available law enforcement resources can be kept within our jurisdiction to provide law enforcement service, instead of being sent to facilities sometimes hours away from our jurisdiction, that is a huge plus for us and the citizens we serve,” said WCSO Col. Grant Kilgore.
While still providing a safe and secure transportation alternative to the patient, “it would definitely be a positive development,” Kilgore said.
G4S will provide alternative transportation services using unarmed, specially trained drivers in secure, unmarked vehicles.
Maria Reppas, a department spokeswoman, said drivers will have hub locations across Virginia to meet response times.
“When a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, we should do all we can to reduce additional trauma and stigmatization,” said Gov. Ralph Northam. “Alternative transportation has been shown to do just that for individuals in need, while also alleviating local law enforcement who currently undertake this important task.”
G4S will provide transportation to an estimated 50% of all TDOs in Virginia during the contract period. In fiscal year 2018, there were more than 25,000 TDOs, and it is estimated that law enforcement transported 99% of these individuals.
The new alternative transportation services will be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Reppas said law enforcement will provide transportation for the remaining 50% of TDOs in Virginia.
Law enforcement will also continue to provide transportation for emergency custody orders, which typically occur when the individual is taken from his or her home and to the hospital for an evaluation.
“We look forward to a positive and beneficial partnership with DBHDS,” said Andrew Bedlack, executive vice president of health care for G4S Secure Solutions. “We understand the value of having access to safe, secure and timely transportation that allows patients who are experiencing a mental health crisis get the help they deserve. We believe providing this specialized service allows local law enforcement resources to be redirected to other priorities.”
Virginia law requires a magistrate issuing an emergency custody order or temporary detention order to specify a law enforcement agency that will provide transportation of a person to the location for evaluation or temporary detention. The law allows the magistrate to consider transportation other than by law enforcement if identified by the community services board evaluator.
In 2018, the General Assembly appropriated $7 million to expand alternative transportation services statewide following a pilot program conducted in 2015 with Mount Rogers Community Services Board.
The new program will begin this summer, according to the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
Eligible drivers must pass a criminal background check by G4S. Drivers will receive 80 hours of classroom and preassignment training.