- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — A Senate committee yesterday endorsed a package of bills on mental-health reform, spurred by the deadliest campus shooting in the country’s history.

The Finance Committee unanimously voted to send the measures to the Senate floor, where they will be taken up early next week. The Courts of Justice Committee previously approved the package and sent it to the budget-writing panel.

Senators acknowledged that the campus shootings — at Virginia Tech on April 16 — created a mandate for mental-health reforms long delayed by budget constraints. A mentally disturbed student, Seung-hui Cho, killed 32 persons and wounded dozens more before committing suicide.

“Too many times, it takes a tragedy for us to get critical mass behind a funding issue,” said Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., Bristol Republican.

Sen. Janet Howell, Fairfax Democrat and sponsor of the most sweeping of the five bills, said the General Assembly is adding $43 million to a “shamefully underfunded” mental-health system.

The Tech shooting exposed flaws in the system, according to a commission appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine to investigate the tragedy. Cho had been ruled a danger to himself during a court commitment hearing in 2005 and was ordered to receive outpatient mental-health care, but he never got it.

Mrs. Howell’s bill would relax the standard for involuntary commitment to a mental-health facility. Under current law, a person proved to be an “imminent danger” to himself or others can be forced into treatment. The bill would change the standard to a “substantial likelihood” that the person will cause physical harm to himself or others.

A 30-member commission, appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr., began examining the mental-health system months before the Tech shootings and had recommended relaxing the involuntary-commitment standard.

Mrs. Howell’s bill also would require better monitoring of those receiving outpatient treatment to make sure they get the treatment that is ordered and allow better sharing of mental-health records.

Other measures endorsed by the committee would reform the process for committing minors and establish a program addressing the unique mental-health needs of veterans.

The panel postponed a few other bills until next year because of a lack of funds. Among them was a proposal by Sen. Henry L. Marsh II, Richmond Democrat, allowing the involuntary commitment of patients who fail to comply with an outpatient treatment plan.

Estimates of the cost of implementing the proposal ranged from less than $11 million to more than $25 million a year.

“In these very uncertain times we’re in, we couldn’t recommend this bill go forward,” said Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee that reviewed the mental-health bills.

•••

The Senate unanimously passed a bill yesterday allowing localities to require carbon-monoxide detectors in some buildings.

The bill was inspired by two incidents in which hundreds were sickened by carbon-monoxide leaks.

In 2006, a 91-year-old man died and more than 100 people attending a Lutheran Church conference at Roanoke College were taken to hospitals because of a carbon-monoxide leak in a dormitory. In August, more than 20 people were sickened, two of them critically, by a carbon-monoxide leak at an apartment near Virginia Tech’s campus.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, allows localities to require carbon-monoxide detectors in any building that contains a fuel-fired appliance or is attached to a garage or carport.

•••

Law-enforcement officials have identified more than 19,000 individual computers containing hard-core child pornography in Virginia but said they don’t have the resources to investigate all of the suspected sexual predators.

The officers were in Richmond yesterday to push “Alicia’s Law,” which was named after a Pennsylvania teen who was brought to Virginia by an online predator, raped and tortured.

The bill, sponsored by Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, would provide more than $32 million for law enforcement to crack down on Internet predators.

However, a House Appropriations subcommittee tabled the bill while lawmakers try to find money to fund the initiative in a tight budget year.

Members from Virginia’s two Internet Crimes Against Children task forces said the state ranks 10th nationwide in the number of transactions of child pornography over the Internet.

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