Over the past several years, mental health advocates have decried the poor state funding for such services. You see them at most public hearings on the budget. But those services cost. And most Republican delegates in the House don’t want to raise taxes.
Michael Kenney shot and killed two police officers this month. Here is his parents’ version of what they went through to get him help.
Beginning in February, Kennedy was evaluated twice at the Woodburn Center for Community Mental Health in Annandale and twice at Prince William Hospital in Manassas but was turned away all four times, [family attorney Richard F.] MacDowell said. He was not given any medication or a plan for treatment. Officials at those facilities said they could not discuss individual cases because of privacy laws.
Woodburn is part of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, with mental health professionals available 24 hours a day to evaluate people and, if necessary, recommend that they be hospitalized, even involuntarily. Prince William Hospital has its own psychiatric inpatient ward.
Experts said the refusal to treat Kennedy is far from surprising.
“Particularly here in Northern Virginia, it’s so hard to get somebody in when they need psychiatric care,” said Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington. She said the definition of who must be given immediate treatment — a person who is in “imminent danger” of harming himself or others or is incapable of caring for himself — is usually interpreted too strictly, often because facilities don’t have room for anyone but the most obviously dangerous people.
Northern Virginia has lost about one-third of its private psychiatric beds in the past three years and more than half of its beds — a decrease from 402 to 196 — since 1990, Zdanowicz said. The one state mental hospital in the region, Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Fairfax, is “always full,” Zdanowicz said.
“The people that desperately need care aren’t getting help.”
Kennedy’s family knew he needed help and had him seeing a private therapist early this year, MacDowell said. But on Feb. 13, while home alone, the teenager shot the family dog. Kennedy told police and friends that he had been suicidal that day, then decided against killing himself but accidentally fired a gun and hit the dog.
MacDowell said police took Kennedy to the Woodburn center that day. After an evaluation, “they determined he was not in need of future services. They had been told that he was seeing a therapist” and advised that was sufficient, MacDowell said.
Kennedy returned to Woodburn with his parents on Easter Sunday, April 16, after he told them “he’s got to be seen by somebody,” MacDowell said. After a lengthy evaluation, MacDowell said Kennedy was told: “You’re too smart to be here. You don’t need to be here. Just go home. Here are four sleeping pills. Go see your private doctor.”
The Kennedy family was not satisfied and returned to Woodburn the next day. MacDowell said a crisis intervention team met with Kennedy, determined that his family had insurance and found a bed for him at Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health Center in Rockville. He was voluntarily admitted the next day, April 18, but broke out a window later that evening and left. He told friends that he didn’t like the way he was being treated. He then stole a car and drove back to Fairfax.
Euphia Hsu Smith, a spokeswoman for Potomac Ridge, said she could not discuss the specifics of Kennedy’s case because of privacy laws. But she noted that “because we’re a health-care facility, we’re not a detention facility. We’re not set up for detention, especially if someone is here voluntarily.”
On April 24, MacDowell said, Kennedy’s mother again tried to get her son help. She called Inova Fairfax and Dominion hospitals, both with limited numbers of psychiatric beds, and was told that there was no room, MacDowell said. She then contacted Prince William Hospital, which said that Kennedy should be brought to the emergency room.
“He’s talking about cutting himself, he’s suicidal and God talks to him,” MacDowell said of Kennedy. “They say he’s fine and give him 10 milligrams of Ambien,” a sleeping pill, MacDowell said.
Donna Ballou, a spokeswoman for Prince William Hospital, said the hospital disagrees with MacDowell’s claims but could not be more specific because of privacy laws.
By early May, Kennedy was talking about aliens, MacDowell said. Margaret Kennedy called Prince William Hospital on May 4 and took him back to the emergency room, in tears, MacDowell said.
MacDowell said the staff thought Kennedy was claiming mental problems to evade criminal charges. “The diagnosis is anxiety,” MacDowell said. “And they let him go.”
“It’s astonishing,” MacDowell said, “how the system has deteriorated to the point that a clearly troubled individual, such as Michael Kennedy, cannot receive inpatient services. Our mental health system in Virginia is essentially broken when the severely ill cannot receive vital and necessary services.”
There are consequences to lawmakers’ actions — or lack thereof. I’d say the death of those two officers’ is in part the responsibility of those anti-tax delegates.