Parents of SC mental heath patient who drowned call for reform
S.C. law enforcement officers who are transporting mental-health patients would be required to undergo specialized crisis-intervention training under proposed legislation being drafted by a group of lawmakers.
A state Senate subcommittee Monday held a second hearing into the drowning deaths of two mental health patients during Hurricane Florence.
Nicolette Green, 43, of Myrtle Beach, and Wendy Newton, 45, of Shallotte, N.C., drowned Sept. 18 in the back of an Horry County sheriff’s van that submerged in floodwaters in Marion County.
Authorities say two deputies drove the van around a barricade onto a flooded road. Family members say the deputies had been given an approved route to take that would avoided flooded roads.
The deputies, who were later fired, couldn’t free the women through the van’s rear door because they did not have its key or bolt-cutters, lawmakers were told.
Green’s 19-year-old daughter drove her to a scheduled counseling appointment, where her new counselor decided Green should be committed at a state mental health facility. The two women were being driven from a mental health facility in Loris and the Waccamaw Center for Mental Health to facilities in Darlington and Lancaster.
Green’s mother, Linda Green of Myrtle Beach, lamented the family never was given an opportunity to transfer her daughter — who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and on medication — themselves, and deplored the conditions in which she was transported, comparing the police van to a “dog cage.”
“These two women were nonviolent,” Linda Green told lawmakers Monday. “To place our daughter in a situation like that — with her schizophrenia, and with the added phobia of claustrophobia in a very tight metal enclosure — could not have been any beneficial for her mind and her health.”
Committee chairman state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, has drafted legislation he plans to file before the Jan. 8 start of the upcoming session. That legislation would require designated “therapeutic” members of law enforcement, trained in crisis intervention, transport mental health patients. It also would require physicians inform family and friends that they have the option to transport patients themselves.
The bill seeks to replicate a model now used by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. That office has a therapeutic transportation unit that works directly with the Commitment Division of the Charleston County Probate Court, hospitals and Charleston Dorchester Mental Health to locate and transport subjects for mental or chemical dependency evaluations.
“Not all counties have the luxury of having trained mental health professionals who drive around in unmarked cars and don’t wear uniforms. But that is the kind of thing we should contemplate putting in place statewide,” Kimpson said. “(The bill) recognizes that people with mental challenges should not be treated like criminals” and deserve to be shown “dignity and respect in the transport process.”
Committee members agreed any revision to state law will have to include recurring state money for training to avoid passing down an unfunded mandate to counties. The cost of the proposal is not yet known.
“There may be a silver lining in what happened,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, a committee member. “It serves as a wake-up call as to the deficiencies.”
The four-member panel also heard testimony about the shortage of in-patient psychiatric beds in rural parts of the state. That shortage requires patients be transported to larger cities where the state’s more than 1,800 psychiatric beds are concentrated.
Christina Lynn, director of behavioral health services at The Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, told lawmakers the 20 beds for mental health patients at her facility fill up by 11 a.m. daily, leaving people waiting for help.
Joshua Baker, head of the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the state’s Medicaid system can try to encourage private providers to build in rural areas, but the only way to guarantee more mental health beds is for the state to build them itself.
Lynn, too, noted a shortage of psychiatrists in the state. Even if more beds were available, “you can’t fill ‘em with doctors,” she said.
Kimpson said he hopes to push the General Assembly to make mental health a greater budgetary priority.
Linda Green and her husband, Donald, said they support the committee’s efforts.
“We need to separate law enforcement and mental health, in my opinion,” Donald Green said. “Law enforcement is fine, but not transporting people in cages. Our pet gets to ride in the back seat. We don’t lock it up in a crate and let if be drowned.
“And, hopefully, what’s happening today will mean that this will never happen again, and people will be protected and given the dignity they deserve and there won’t be a stigma placed on them.”