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Government

Cabell Sheriff Says System Broken As 20 Percent Of Mental Safety Pickups Go Unanswered In County

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Kyle Vass
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Deborah Chapman recalls trying to get a mental hygiene order executed on her nephew in Barboursville, West Virginia., Monday, March 15, 2021.

In West Virginia, when a person is thought to be a threat to themselves or others, they can be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility through a process known as a “mental hygiene petition.” These petitions, usually taken out by a family member or outreach worker, have to be approved by a county court and require a sheriff's deputy to help transport the person being committed.

But in Cabell County, data from a mental health facility show at least 75 mental hygiene orders went unanswered by the Cabell County Sheriff's Department in 2020. The sheriff says his department is overwhelmed.

Deborah Chapman said her nephew suffers from substance use disorder. His name is being withheld to protect his privacy.

“When his number shows up on my phone, it's like, ‘Oh, I hope it's good news.’ And, sometimes it is. But, for the longest time, it wasn't. ‘I need this. I need help. I need help. I'm here. Can you come and get me,” she said. “And where I have no children of my own and am so close with him. I would go rescue him. But, that even that was getting like, you know, am I really helping him by rescuing?”

One day, in 2018, her nephew told Chapman he didn’t want to live anymore. He planned on taking a fatal overdose of heroin.

“He kept saying, you know, I'm going to do just the right amount this time that they won't be able to help me.”

That same day, Chapman said she filed a mental hygiene petition with the Cabell County Courthouse. And, a few days later, her petition was approved by a mental hygiene commissioner. She received a call in the middle of the night telling her the sheriff’s deputies would be by to pick up her nephew and take him to Prestera, the local mental health facility.

“And I thanked him and thanked him and hung up and went home and went to bed thinking, “Yes! Something’s going to be done.” She added, “Well, our problems are over. We're on our way to getting this young man some help, but it just didn't happen.”

According to Chapman, the deputies never came. Knowing that the petition she filed would expire after 10 days, she went down to the courthouse to beg a deputy to execute the court order.

“He said we don't have the manpower, nor the desire to pull the deputy off road patrol to sit with a loved one, while Prestera finds a bed one for them. And I was shocked. In the meantime, 10 days later, after my warrant was given, my nephew overdosed.” Chapman said he survived but the experience was traumatic for everyone involved. “He had to be ventilated and paddles used on him. And it made me angry, I thought, well, if he would have been picked up, maybe, maybe this wouldn't have happened.”

Chapman’s experience wasn’t a one-off thing. Jason Rhoton who worked under the Cabell County Coalition for the Homelessness from 2018 to 2020 says more often than not, when he would file a mental hygiene petition for someone as part of his job, he’d run into the same problem as Chapman.

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Jason Rhoton recalls his experience filing mental hygiene petitions in Cabell County from his office in Charleston, West Virginia, on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

“Most of the time they would be approved, but then no one would come out to pick the person up even if we would call 911 or call the non emergency number and say, “Hey, that we have a mental hygiene against this person. And we need them picked up they’re right here, you can come and get them right now.” No one would be dispatched to do it.

Rhoton said his frustration in trying to get a sheriff’s deputy to come pick people up was as much a matter of public safety as it was a matter of compassion.

“I had a client who was chronically experiencing homeless and had a lot of mental health issues. He was very violent, and had been involved with beating people up before, like badly—always brandishing knives and things like that. And we did several on him, and only had one out of the five we did on him, we only had someone come out once. That's because he was running the street. I think other people were possibly reporting it.”

“I don’t know what the staffing situation was like at the sheriff's department. So, I don’t want to speak to that. But, I know they have to go in, they have to sit with them for a very long time. They have to stay there with them the entire time.”

Sheriff Chuck Zerkle, who knows exactly what the staffing situation is like in his office, said the current process for executing mental hygiene orders can take upwards of 20 hours for his deputies to find the person, detain them, take them to a hospital to get lab work done and then take them to a separate mental health facility and sit with that person until they can be admitted. Zerkle said recently, a single mental hygiene order took so long to process that he had to send out three deputies from his office in a single day.

“We started on a day shift, and it drug out through past day into the evening shift. And, then actually, my midnight shift guy had to finish it and take the guy to a facility. And the big part of that was...where the guy's blood sugar was elevated, and they didn't admit him to the hospital. They just kept dragging us out because I guess they wanted to wait until his blood sugar went down. It was multiple hours. 10, 12, 14 hours that transcended into three shifts of people.”

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Kyle Vass
Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle explains the mental hygiene process at his office in Huntington, West Virginia, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Zerkle added that in 2020 alone, his office received approximately one mental hygiene order a day from the courts. And per the WV State Code, only sheriffs and their deputies are approved to execute mental hygiene. He says his office can’t keep up.

We all want to agree that we're all wanting to help ourselves dig out of this opioid issue and the mental health issue. But you've got a small minority of law enforcement that is saddled with doing this.

For Zerkle, the only way to fix the problem is to change the law regarding mental hygiene orders. He doesn’t see why lawmakers can’t approve all law enforcement agencies to do these pickups.

“My perfect world would be law enforcement would secure them, get them to the facility, get the stuff started, and then we leave and turn it over to someone else that's medically trained to take care of these people,” he said.

Currently, two bills have been introduced by Sen. Charles Trump, a Republican from Morgan County, that would address mental hygiene orders in the state. The new bills would expand the window deputies have to pick people up from 10 to 20 days and remove the need for deputies to first take people to the hospital prior to transporting them to a mental health facility. Both of these bills have made it out of the senate and are currently being heard by the House Health and Human Resources Committee.


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