Sen. Creigh Deeds’ quiet return to the General Assembly quickly ended Thursday, with a passionate fight that wasn’t just political, but deeply personal.
One of his signature bills of the session, extending emergency custody limits from four to 24 hours, ran into unexpected criticism during a Senate panel meeting. Among the major concerns, whether sheriffs’ offices with limited staffing can hold people who need psychiatric care for an entire day.
Emergency custody orders (ECOs) apply to patients who need mental assistance, but a location for mental healthcare is not immediately available. Deputies or appointed authorities with an ECO take patients into custody, before the patients can hurt themselves or others.
Currently, orders can last up to four hours, with a two hour extension. But Deeds said Thursday the timeframe is too short, and lawmakers’ time to make a change has run out.
"Those hours, those seconds, might mean a life,” Deeds said. “Every one of these situations is life and death. And you have to treat them with urgency.”
Appropriate psychiatric care was not found in time for Deeds’ 24-year-old son, who was released from an emergency custody order last year. On Nov. 19, Austin “Gus” Deeds slashed his father’s face, before turning a gun on himself and pulling the trigger.
Deeds’ bill to extend emergency custody orders (SB 260) ran into trouble when Goochland Sheriff James L. Agnew said he could envision rural sheriff departments without adequate manpower to handle 24 hour custody cases.
Also appearing before Thursday’s Senate panel, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the executive director of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union. She told Deeds and members of the Senate’s Education and Health Subcommittee on Mental Health that holding people for more than six hours would constitute a serious violation of civil rights.
“When you go beyond [six hours], people deserve a hearing,” Gastañaga said. “We can’t just sacrifice civil liberties because we’re not doing our part to give people appropriate care.”
The ACLU has not taken an official position on the bill as of yet. Gastañaga told senators she wanted to voice her concerns before possible legal challenges.
“You’ve worked so hard on this, and that’s why I wanted to bring these comments up today,” Gastañaga said. “And there are people being held in the back offices of sheriffs’ departments during the ECO period. That just won’t be acceptable; it's not a therapeutic environment.”
The bill is now on hold until Monday, giving Sen. Deeds time to re-word critical provisions. The Senate subcommittee will then decide whether to advance the bill onto a full committee vote.