Civil liberties group praises infusion of funds, criticizes lower standards for involuntary commitment; expresses concern about information sharing.

Richmond, VA –Virginia Governor Tim Kaine today released new proposals for reform of the Virginia mental health system. The proposals follow closely the recommendations of a mental health reform task force appointed by the Governor in the wake of the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech earlier this year. The ACLU’s statement on the Governor’s proposals is below.

Statement of Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia

We commend the Governor for proposing funding increases that will result in more and better trained personnel, and for requiring more hands-on participation in the evaluation of patients for commitment. Under-funded government programs run by poorly trained personnel can look good on paper, but they never work. It is one thing when this scenario leads to traffic snarls, yet another when lives and liberty are at stake. This aspect of the Governor’s proposal makes the mental health system in Virginia both more effective and more accountable.
But in some regards it is clear that the Governor and the Virginia Tech Review Panel have allowed emotions in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy to hold sway over reason.  The ACLU is particularly dismayed that the Governor supports a measure to lower the standard for involuntary commitment from “imminent danger” to oneself or others to “substantial likelihood” that the person will cause harm to himself or others.
It is important to remember that the “imminent danger” standard for commitment was put in place to stop the practice of railroading persons with mental disabilities into institutions. The much looser “substantial likelihood” standard re-opens the door to a past we do not want to re-visit – one in which persons with mental disabilities were treated as second-class citizens without due process rights, and often ended up unnecessarily confined. No system is perfect, but the ACLU believes that a properly administered commitment procedure using the “imminent danger” standard can protect public safety while maintaining the due process rights of patients.
We are also concerned about the proposal to allow more sharing of information about patients among mental health providers. This program can be designed in such a way that privacy rights are protected, or it can become an open book for mental health records. History shows us that when information on persons with mental disabilities gets in the wrong hands, it is used to discriminate against them. This is precisely why the state and the federal government have passed laws in recent years to regulate the sharing of medical information.

Contact: Kent Willis, 804/644-8022