Arlington, VA

Officials and activists are asking the county courts to make a newly-proposed mental health jail diversion program more inclusive.

Arlington and Fairfax public defenders joined several advocates during a Thursday evening meeting about the proposal, and urged county officials to broaden the mental illnesses diagnoses accepted in the program and not require plea bargains as a participation requirement.

Brad Haywood, who leads the Office of the Public Defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, shared a list of changes his office wants the county to make to the proposal before the county submits the application to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Juliet Hiznay, a special education attorney by training, joined him on Thursday to express concern that only some “serious mental illnesses” were considered shoe-ins for the program, which is called the Behavioral Health Docket.

Hiznay said she was worried that people with developmental disabilities (like ADD or autism) could also benefit from the court-supervised treatment plan, but would be considered “exceptions” under the current eligibility criteria.

Much of the evening focused on discussing whether the county should require participants to plead guilty to their charges before participating in the program (as is currently proposed) or allow them to follow the docket program and then have a trail (as Fairfax County does.)

“Because it requires a guilty plea it literally can’t decriminalize mental illness,” said panelist Lisa Dailey, who analyzes and advises mental illness decriminalization policies at the Treatment Advocacy Center. “So if that’s your goal you’re failing right out of the gate.”

When Arlington Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lisa Tingle asked Fairfax Public Defender Dawn Butorac asks whether the Fairfax docket convicts participants of their charges if they fail out of the program, Butorac said Fairfax prosecutors set no such deals.

“Telling your client ‘if you fail this is what we’re going to do’ is sending the wrong message,” Butorac said.

Haywood pointed out that another benefit of nixing the pre-plea requirement was getting people into treatment fast — something not possible if the county’s tedious discovery process slows down the process.

Haywood also noted that requiring pleas to participate in the mental health service could lead innocent people to say they were guilty in order to access services. He acknowledged that was an “extreme” hypothetical but could be avoided if the county followed Fairfax County’s example of only contending with pleas after a participant finishes their docket treatment plan.

“We are much more inclusive than Arlington,” Butorac said of Fairfax’s docket, which was created after a mentally ill woman was tasered.  “When we drafted it, we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible.”

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(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) Courts in Arlington County will no longer legally declare people drunks and arrest them for drinking alcohol after a federal court ruled the old law unconstitutional.

A full panel of judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a state law called “interdiction” which allows counties to label people “habitual drunkards” and prosecute them for having or drinking alcohol. The judges ruled 8-7 last week that the law left the meaning of habitual drunkards “unconstitutionally vague” and constituted cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“We hope that this means that our clients can have the debilitating label ‘habitual drunkard’ lifted from them and they can move through their lives without constant fear of prosecution,” said Elaine Poon, the managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center which has helped lead a class-action fight in court to overturn the law for the last three years.

Prosecutors in Arlington this week dismissed seven active cases brought under the nullified law, and police have suspended enforcement — though laws against public drunkenness and other alcohol-related crimes remain on the books.

“In accordance with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruling, the Arlington County Police Department has suspended enforcement of the Virginia Code sections related to alcohol interdiction,” said ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage. “No arrests or charges will be sought in relation to those code sections.”

Brad Haywood, Arlington’s Chief Public Defender, said attorneys in his office were notified about the change Thursday morning when they showed up to court, and his office was “ecstatic” to hear the news last week.

“This has been an issue that defense attorneys and social workers have been fighting for decades,” he said. “Since the first day I’ve worked a public defender 15 years ago there were concerted efforts to overturn this law.”

Case Dismissed 

The case, Manning v. Caldwell, is named after Roanoke man Bryan Manning. A judge declared Manning a “drunkard” nine years ago under the interdiction statute without Manning present because the man, who is homeless and had struggled with alcohol addiction for several years, can be difficult to find. Over the next eight years, Manning racked up over 30 charges related to possessing alcohol or being suspected of drinking it, and the frequent arrests often cost him jobs and led to him losing his possessions.

Manning isn’t the only one: in Arlington, one interdicted man has been charged 37 times, per data the prosecutor’s office shared with ARLnow.

The same data shows 12 people have been interdicted in Arlington since 2015, and in total there are 50 interdicted in the county — with each person averaging 19 prosecutions. Between 1996 and 2015, there were 1,220 people legally declared drunks across Virginia, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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Some officials and residents are asking for more time to review a jail diversion program for people with mental illnesses, saying the county developed it without enough public input.

About a hundred people gathered in the County Board’s meeting room Wednesday afternoon for a meeting called after activists requested a chance to weigh in on the new criminal justice program. Attendees expressed general support for the “Behavioral Health Docket” but worried about its requirement that participants plead guilty to participate, adding that the county needed to listen to more members of the public before finalizing the program.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind is that even if the application is a post-plea docket, which is what Judge [Fran] O’Brien would like to see happen, that there’s going to be evolution,” said Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Anita Friedman in an interview. “I think that even if we start post-plea we might add pre-plea later.”

“I think the important thing is not to let perfection be the enemy of good,” she said, noting that the county has revised its other diversion program, Drug Court, many times over the last few years.

The Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia must approve the county’s request to form the diversion program. DHS originally planned to apply for that approval last month before a group of activists and officials, including incoming prosecutor Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, said they hadn’t heard about it and had concerns.

After the meeting, officials did not confirm whether they would extend their plan to submit the application in September, or would schedule additional public meetings.

Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood was one of the officials who said he hadn’t heard about the application until very recently. On Wednesday, Haywood said he still supported for the docket but reiterated concerns about the post-plea condition.

“I really want to make sure that as many people as possible are getting into this program, and getting in as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that requiring pleas could “dramatically reduce” the number of participants and how fast they can join it.

The Behavioral Health Docket will accept participants who have pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense, or a felony reduced to a misdemeanor, and reside in Arlington, according to a program description obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. People with a history of felony convictions, sexual offenses, or have active warrants out for their arrest in other jurisdictions cannot participate, per a copy of the application ARLnow obtained after filing a FOIA request.

Participants would have to meet weekly in court as well as their probation officer, mental health clinician, per the application. Participants will also have to pass drug and alcohol screenings, take any medications prescribed, participate in activities like volunteer work or employment, and stay clear of any new arrests. Over time, participants will meet less frequently as they work towards a “graduation” where they’ll be supervised for another 90 days.

“That’s why it’s called a therapeutic docket,” said Judge O’Brien. “It’s designed to help people with mental illness and designed to help keep them on a path that keeps them out of the criminal justice system.”

She told the audience that it was imperative to move quickly because of the sheer number of people affected. Earlier that day, she said five people on her docket were clients of the county’s behavioral health services and where “chronic violators” of their parole. Recently, she said one defendant disappeared after appearing to get better and family members were concerned he was off his medications.

“All I wanted to do is try to find him before he got too far gone,” said O’Brien. “Because I didn’t have that power because he wasn’t on my docket, so I had to issue a warrant for his arrest.”

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Arlington County is considering a new program to divert people with mental illnesses into treatment instead of jail.

The proposed program would waive incarceration for people with mental illnesses who are convicted of non-violent misdemeanors if they agree to an intensive treatment program supervised by a judge. All the officials who spoke to ARLnow about the program supported it, but some weren’t aware the county was working on the program and said they had little opportunity to add input.

The Arlington County’s Department of Human Services is spearheading the program. A spokesman told ARLnow on June 27 that in response to “recent requests” it would host a public meeting on the so-called Behavioral Health Docket on Wednesday, July 17 at 3 p.m. The location of the meeting has yet to be determined.

“The aim is to divert eligible defendants with diagnosed mental health disorders into judicially supervised, community-based treatment, designed and implemented by a team of court staff and mental health professionals,” said DHS Assistant Director Kurt Larrick.

This new docket aims to accept defendants 18 or older who reside in Arlington and who are diagnosed with a serious mental illness, Larrick said. Additionally, only defendants who have been charged with misdemeanors, not felonies, would be eligible for the diversion program. Defendants would need to agree to work with a team of mental health professionals and program staff to enroll in the docket and agree to follow a treatment plan with some supervision.

“These programs are distinguished by several unique elements: a problem-solving focus; a team approach to decision-making; integration of social services; judicial supervision of the treatment process; direct interaction between defendants and the judge; community outreach; and a proactive role for the judge,” Larrick said.

Where Mental Illness and the Law Collide

Officials and advocates say they hope that the docket will help break the cycle of recidivism that some people with mental illnesses fall into.

“Arlington has a significant number of people with mental illnesses that intersect with the criminal justice system,” Deputy Public Defender Amy K. Stitzel told ARLnow. “Evidence-based mental health dockets not only treat instead of criminalizing behavior that is a result of mental illness, they increase treatment engagement, improve quality of life, reduce recidivism and save money.”

“We’re talking about people who are arrested for vagrancy and loitering and trespassing,” said Naomi Verdugo, who has been an activist for people in Arlington with mental illness for several years. “These are largely misdemeanors and stupid things, and it’s because they aren’t well. We would be better off putting services around them than paying to incarcerate people who are just going to reoffend.”

“It is clear that the local and regional jails in Virginia have a substantial number of persons with mental illness in their care, and that this care is costly to the localities and to the Commonwealth,” says a 2017 study of similar programs statewide.

The most recent data from Virginia jail surveys indicate that statewide 1 in 10 of the inmates counted was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, such as PTSD or schizophrenia, and about 20% of all inmates had some kind of mental illness.

In Arlington, data from 2016, 2017, and 2018 indicates the most common diagnoses for inmates are bipolar disorder/major depressive and schizophrenia.

Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood said his office has been part of a team discussing mental health improvements for 15 years with the county’s Mental Health Criminal Justice Review Committee, and for the past five years with a subcommittee dedicated to creating a docket, called the Behavioral Health Docket Committee. Haywood strongly supports the idea of a Behavioral Health Docket but noted his office wasn’t notified the county had advanced plans for the docket until recently.

“This is not a transparent approach”

While he applauded DHS for moving the program forward, Haywood said he would have liked more input on the design when organizers decided to require defendants plead guilty before participating in the program.

“From our perspective, until early spring of 2019, the process for drafting and submitting an application for the Mental Health Docket seemed to be moving very slowly,” he said. “I don’t know what changed that took the process to where it is now, to having tight deadlines and short comment periods.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who recently won the Democratic primary against incumbent prosecutor Theo Stamos, said she heard about the docket for the first time two weeks ago. During her campaign, Tafti advocated for a mental health court as part of larger criminal justice reforms, but said she wasn’t given a chance to comment on the Behavioral Health Docket.

She told ARLnow that she has concerns the new program “criminalizes mental illness” by requiring a plea to participate.

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Morning Notes

County Auditor Probes Police Overtime — “A performance audit conducted by the County Auditor as part of his Fiscal Year 2018 work plan found that the Arlington County Police Department’s overtime costs exceeded budgeted expenses in Fiscal Years 2016, 2017 and 2018. The audit did not identify any evidence of improper overtime.” [Arlington County]

Few Fireworks in School Board Race — “A relatively low-key race for the Democratic endorsement leading into November’s School Board race is headed to three days of caucus voting, with the two candidates focused more on the issues than landing body blows on each other. ‘I would prefer to talk about how we are going to move in a positive direction in the future,’ challenger David Priddy said when asked to lay out the biggest failures of the School Board during the period incumbent Reid Goldstein has served on it.” [InsideNova]

ACPD and Mental Health Awareness Month — “In 2018, the Arlington County Police Department responded to 2,227 calls for service involving individuals in mental health crisis — a figure that has risen each year since 2015. To increase awareness about Department initiatives and resources, we are sharing information about how we interact with the public, and how we are ensuring that our officers have the resources they need to continue to provide professional police services to our community.” [Arlington County]

School Board Member Endorses Tafti — Arlington School Board member Monique O’Grady has endorsed Commonwealth’s Attorney challenge Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in her race against incumbent Theo Stamos. [Facebook]

Launch of ‘Housing Arlington’ — “Go bigger. Be bolder. We’ve heard from Arlingtonians that housing affordability — rental & ownership — demands even more aggressive solutions. So we’re launching ‘Housing Arlington’ tonight to tackle the challenge — together.” [Twitter]

Arlington Firm Acquires Health Insurance Company — “Arlington health system consultancy Evolent Health Inc. has reached a deal to take majority ownership of a Kentucky health insurance provider… Evolent’s stock price dipped more than 28% to $10.15 per share in Wednesday afternoon trading on the news.” [Washington Business Journal]

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Morning Notes

Bar Owner Trolled By ‘Catfish’ Account — Someone is impersonating Scott Parker, co-owner of A-Town, Don Tito, Barley Mac and G.O.A.T., on social media, in an apparent attempt to damage his reputation. The “catfish” recently sent a journalist a profanity-laced rant that encouraged her to kill herself. [Washingtonian, Twitter]

Columbia Pike Water Main Break — Crews are currently working to repair a water main break on the 5500 block of Columbia Pike. The street is partially blocked and some 50-100 water customers have their service affected by the break. [Twitter]

Local Mother Grapples With Son’s Mental Illness — “The night of March 31, 2017, he became so inconsolable, screaming and weeping, that she called the police and had him involuntarily hospitalized at an Arlington hospital. He stayed two weeks, but because he is an adult, and because a hospital must release people from involuntary care when it no longer believes they meet commitment standards, doctors discharged him.” [Washington Post]

Wardian Strikes Again — “A little over a week ago, [ultramarathoner Michael] Wardian pulled off one of his most challenging back-to-backs yet, running the Pikes Peak Marathon, featuring 7,815 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of loss on a rugged mountain course that tops out at 14,115 feet – in 6 hours, 2 minutes and 55 seconds, mere hours after finishing tenth in the Leadville 100 in 20 hours, 18 minutes and 57 seconds.” [Medium]

County Testing New ‘ePlan’ Payments — Arlington County is seeking users to test its new electronic payments system for those filing Building Permits, Land Disturbing Activity (LDA) Permits and Civil Engineering Plans (CEP) online. The system is likely to be seen as progress by those who have previously critiqued the county’s cumbersome permitting process. [Arlington County]

Last Call for Christmas Tree Recycling — Friday is the last day for recycling Christmas trees via curbside pickup in Arlington. ‘Recycled’ trees will be turned into mulch. [Arlington County]

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John Fitzgerald (photo courtesy ACPD)An Arlington County Police officer was stabbed in the neck and saved from further injury by his ballistic vest during a confrontation with a man suffering an apparent mental health crisis.

The incident happened on the 800 block of N. Irving Street, two blocks from Clarendon.

Crisis Intervention Team trained officers were serving an emergency custody order on a 28-year-old resident around 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, according to an ACPD crime report, when the man pulled out a knife and tried to tried to stab officers and take their weapons.

The officers, who are trained in non-lethal ways to deal with combative suspects, used a Taser to subdue him and take him into custody.

“One officer suffered a non-life threatening wound to the neck and numerous strikes to the body were obstructed by his ballistic vest,” according to the crime report, below.

MALICIOUS WOUNDING ON LAW ENFORCEMENT, 2017-03220058, 800 block of N. Irving Street. At approximately 6:57 a.m. on March 22, officers were dispatched to the area to serve an emergency custody order on a subject. As the Crisis Intervention Trained officers made contact with the subject inside the residence, he advanced towards them, reached behind his back and produced a knife. The officers were able to block the initial strike and take the subject to the ground where he continued to be combative and repeatedly attempted to disarm the officers. A taser was deployed and the subject was taken into custody. One officer suffered a non-life threatening wound to the neck and numerous strikes to the body were obstructed by his ballistic vest. John Fitzgerald, 28, of Arlington, VA was arrested and charged with malicious wounding on law enforcement, assault and battery on police and attempt to disarm an officer.

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Logo via Arlington CountyArlington County is stepping up its suicide prevention efforts in 2017, including launching a pilot program aimed specifically at youth.

The county’s Dept. of Human Services is enhancing its suicide prevention strategies based on the Zero Suicide initiative. The overall goal is to reduce the number of suicides in the county — there were 41 reported between 2013 an 2015 — to zero and improve care and outcomes for those seeking help.

Over the summer some county staff attended a seminar to learn more about implementing the Zero Suicide methods. They’ve applied the strategies and have been teaching other employees about them so everyone is on the same page in the new year.

After an assessment earlier this year, staff discovered inconsistencies in the suicide prevention knowledge and responses among the different divisions within DHS, says Sharon Lawrence, Children’s Behavioral Healthcare bureau chief.

“We wanted to establish a universal approach to make sure that we’re addressing suicide,” Lawrence says.

Part of the revamped approach is to step up training and to ensure all relevant DHS staff members are comfortable handling suicide-related discussions and situations.

In addition, the Children’s Behavioral Healthcare division is spearheading one of the major Zero Suicide-related programs in the new year: a pilot to assess the treatment model and address youth “suicidality,” both in identifying those at risk and in ongoing treatment of those individuals. As part of the pilot the division is implementing the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale, which includes plain-language questions that make it easier for staff to identify young people who are at risk of self-harm and to have more productive follow-up visits.

One reason the department chose to focus on youth for the pilot is that suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Plus, local survey results released in 2014 indicated that 25 percent of Arlington 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks at a time.

“In the past year-and-a-half we have trained over 300 people in Arlington, including in the schools, to be able to identify when a young person is at risk of harm and may be in distress,” Lawrence says.

Overall, the new methods are “basically a commitment to provide better suicide prevention strategies and tools to DHS staff,” Lawrence says. “Suicide deaths are preventable, that’s the basis of Zero Suicide. The only way to prevent it is by implementing strategies that speak to leadership in terms of the culture you’re setting for staff and the community, [and by] providing training.”

The Department of Human Services’ increased push for suicide prevention also involves asking residents to give feedback via a short online survey about existing services, suicide prevention training and any unaddressed needs.

Lawrence says everyone should speak up if they encounter a person at risk of self-harm, whether it’s a young person or an adult. She suggests thinking of it like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign.

“People say ‘I don’t know what to say.’ It’s best to say something so you don’t ever feel like you missed an opportunity [to help],” says Lawrence.

She explains that it’s okay not to directly address a person at risk of self-harm. It’s sometimes better to first talk to someone with knowledge of handling such situations, like a counselor or teacher. But Lawrence reiterates the importance of not staying silent.

“There’s always help. There is help in Arlington County,” she says.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm, call 911 or the Department of Human Services’ emergency services line at 703-228-5160. CrisisLink also has a 24-hour crisis hotline at 703-527-4077 or 800-SUICIDE, or text 703-940-0888.

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Morning Notes

Rainbow behind the Iwo Jima memorial (photo courtesy Mark T.)

Webb Running for School BoardFormer candidate for Congress Mike Webb says he’s running for Arlington School Board against incumbent James Lander. “Every problem that we face in Arlington’s public schools can find a solution in opening public charter schools,” Webb wrote in a Facebook post. [Blue Virginia]

Handbag Schemer Led Lavish Lifestyle — Praepitcha Smatsorabudh, the Arlington resident who was just sentenced to 30 months in prison for a fake handbag scheme, led a lavish jet-setting lifestyle that she documented on Instagram while perpetrating the $1 million fraud. [The Sun, Daily Mail]

Metro Installing More WiFi — After a six-station pilot program, Metro has announced that it will be installing public WiFi at all of its underground stations. The work is expected to begin this summer and wrap up by the end of 2018. [The Hill]

VHC to Expand Mental Health Facilities — Virginia Hospital Center is being pushed to expand its behavioral and mental health facilities as part of a proposed expansion of the hospital. Currently, the facilities are located in the hospital’s basement and only include 18 beds. There are an estimated 6,000 people with serious mental illness in Arlington County. [InsideNova]

Arlington Suicide Prevention Survey — Arlington is conducting an online survey about the county’s suicide prevention resources and services. [SurveyMonkey]

Photo courtesy Mark T.

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The Arlington County Board on Saturday accepted state funding for mental health services and suicide prevention for those age 17 and younger.

From a county press release:

Arlington has received an additional $200,000 in state funding for a program that provides mobile crisis response and video-conference psychiatric counseling (tele-psychiatry) to children under the age of 18 across the region. The mobile nature of the program means that trained professionals will come to the home of a youth in crisis (or other community location) to provide face-to-face assessment, intervention and support, and coordinate follow-up services.

Arlington County’s Department of Human Services serves as the responsible fiscal agent for the Children’s Regional Crisis Response (CR2), launched in 2015. The program provides mobile crisis response and tele-psychiatry to youth under the age of 18 in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park. Services to youth and their families are provided under contract by the National Counseling Group, a community mental health organization that works throughout Virginia.

The additional state funding raises the ongoing regional budget for these services to $1.44 million for Fiscal Year 2017. The program is fully state-funded. So far in FY 2017, the program working with an average of 75 youth per month across the service area. Service provision is based on need rather than on a jurisdictional allocation formula.

“This regional program is an important part of our overall range of services for youth,” said County Board Chair Libby Garvey. “It complements the County’s outpatient therapy, case management and psychiatric services by providing rapid response to all youth facing a mental health and/or substance use crisis. I encourage everyone to learn more about the signs and symptoms of a child in crisis and how to get help. You can visit the website at cr2crisis.com.”

The Board unanimously approved accepting the funding.  To read the staff report, visit the county website. Scroll down to Item No. 28 on the Agenda for the Saturday, Nov. 5 Regular County Board Meeting.

Where to get help:

  1. If someone is in immediate danger, call 911
  1. In need of emergency mental health services? Call Arlington Children’s Behavioral Healthcare Services:
  • Emergency Line: 703-228-5160
  • General Number: 703-228-1560
  1. Contact CR2. Visit the website, or call:
  • 844-N-Crisis (844-627-4747) or 571-364-7390

Additional resources

Worried your child may attempt suicide/self-harm? Not sure what to do? Call:

  • Crisis Link Regional Hot Line: 703-527-4077
  • National Hope Line: 1-800-SUICIDE
  • LGBTQ Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
  • Text: CONNECT to 85511
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An 11-year-old throwing plates out of a high-rise apartment prompted a large police response in Ballston over the weekend.

The incident happened around 9 p.m. Saturday at the Randolph Towers apartment building along N. Quincy Street. No injuries were reported.

From an Arlington County Police Department crime report:

DESTRUCTION OF PROPERTY, 161008040, 4000 block of N. 9th Street. At approximately 9:00 p.m. on October 8, police were dispatched to the report of an unknown subject throwing dishware from a high level balcony. The investigation revealed that an 11-year-old male juvenile in a mental health crisis was responsible. His family was referred to government services.

A number of nearby residents were tweeting about the incident as the sound of shattering plates could be heard echoing around the area.

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