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Jails Struggle to Help Mentally Ill Inmates

 

By Yasmine Jumaa and Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Arrested for taking $5 in snacks from a convenience store, Jamycheal Mitchell was placed in a cell in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth. Authorities planned to send Mitchell, who suffered from schizophrenia, to a mental hospital. But that never happened.

Over the next four months, Mitchell withered away, losing more than 40 pounds. He died in his cell on Aug. 19, 2015.

“I had to ask again: ‘You sure this is my cousin?’ ” Jenobia Meads told reporters after seeing Mitchell’s body at the funeral home. “It looked like he was 67 years old.”

Mitchell’s death underscored the prevalence of people with mental illnesses in Virginia’s jails. More than one in six inmates is mentally ill, according to a 2017 study by state officials. Despite years of discussion and attempts at action, lasting reforms have proved difficult to achieve.

“As a mental health reformer, I’ve told people for a long time it’s like eating an elephant,” said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath. “You take a bite and you feel full, but then you look at what’s ahead of you, the work ahead of you, and you realize that you haven’t really done much.”

A senator motivated by tragedy

In 2013, Deeds was stabbed multiple times at his home in Bath County by his 24-year-old son, Gus, who then committed suicide. Gus Deeds had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but mental health care system officials released him after they could not find an open bed in the state psychiatric system during the six-hour window allotted by law at the time.

The tragedy motivated Deeds, a member of the state Senate for 17 years, to become an advocate for mental health reform. He heads the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century.

The subcommittee expects to issue a report on its findings by the end of 2019. In the meantime, members of the panel have endorsed several budgetary and legislative proposals on such issues as alternatives to incarceration, crisis and emergency services, and housing.

The work will continue under a new state mental health commissioner. Hughes Melton, chief deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, was recently named by Gov. Ralph Northam to head the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. He will succeed Jack Barber, an agency veteran who has been commissioner for three years.

“The joint subcommittee is at a critical point in our work, as we only have about a year and a half of life left,” Deeds said. “We cannot afford to lose one inch of ground or one moment of time.”

Deeds said he looks forward to working with Melton to achieve the subcommittee’s goals.

Virginia’s lack of psychiatric beds

The move will be closely watched in the state, which has struggled to improve mental health services. Among the challenges has been the loss of thousands of psychiatric beds since the 1960s, when mental health advocates pushed for community-based programs and the deinstitutionalization of patients.

Community-based treatment is cost-efficient in managing mental health problems and establishes a level of care that can address problems before they become emergencies. But psychiatric hospitals and other residential facilities are necessary in the event of a mental health crisis like the one experienced by Gus Deeds.

According to a 2017 survey by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, Virginia has about 1,500 psychiatric beds – not nearly enough to meet the needs of people with severe mental illnesses.

When left untreated, severe mental illness may result in behavior that can put the person in the custody of law enforcement – placing the burden of psychiatric treatment on correctional facilities.

“People with mental illness are sometimes caught up in situations where paranoia, or whatever drives them to do something that somebody may consider a criminal act, and the result is they wind up in jail,” Deeds said. “There’s probably a better way for us to respond to that.”

Individuals with psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to be in a jail or correctional facility than in a hospital bed, according to research by the Treatment Advocacy Center. About 4 percent of U.S. adults have a serious mental illness, while 20 percent of inmates are diagnosed with a severe mental disorder – leading some to characterize prisons and jails as America’s “new asylums.

The Hampton Roads Regional Jail, where Mitchell was held at the time of his death, has become an unofficial mental health institution for Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake. Nearly half of the jail’s 1,100 inmates are diagnosed as mentally ill, according to a study by the Virginia Department of Corrections and state Compensation Board.

The Compensation Board works with sheriffs and other constitutional officers. The General Assembly has directed the board to issue an annual report on the number of jail inmates with mental illness. The board’s 2017 report put the number at more than 7,450 – almost 18 percent of the statewide jail population.

Mitchell’s death prompted a criminal investigation by the Virginia State Police, an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into whether the facility violates the rights of prisoners and a $60 million federal lawsuit filed by Mitchell’s family. Both investigations and the lawsuit are ongoing.

The punitive approach of correctional facilities creates an environment ill-suited for the rehabilitation of mental illness, critics say. The Compensation Board reported that 1,335 jail inmates diagnosed with mental illnesses were placed in solitary confinement last year.

Another death, this one in Fairfax County

Jamycheal Mitchell wasn’t the only mentally ill person to die in a Virginia jail. Natasha McKenna, who also suffered from schizophrenia, died in the Fairfax County Jail in 2015. A lawsuit filed in 2016 against the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office alleges that insufficient training factored into McKenna’s death.

McKenna, 37, died after being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by correctional officers trying to move her to another cell. Attorney Harvey Volzer, who is representing McKenna’s mother, declined to comment on the case. However, when Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh investigated the case in 2015, he determined that no crime was committed and that no charges would be filed against the officers.

The Treatment Advocacy Center has found that individuals diagnosed with severe mental disorders are more likely than other offenders to end up back in jail.

“We need to make sure we have discharge plans, that we have a way for them to kind of parachute into the community and seek and receive treatment services,” Deeds said. “We need to be looking at the whole person and the way we can treat them.”

Addressing that need, the 2016 General Assembly awarded six regional and local jails $3.5 million to establish pilot programs that provide mental health services to inmates while incarcerated and after their release.

A ‘pretty ambitious’ list of solutions

In 2014, the General Assembly passed a bill proposed by Deeds that extended the time limit on emergency custody orders, established a registry of available psychiatric beds in public and private hospitals, and designated state hospitals to serve as facilities of last resort. The legislation sought to ensure that beds would be available for citizens, including inmates, who experience a mental health crisis.

Deeds has asked the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia to study alternative solutions for people having severe mental health issues.

Having options is crucial because the state hospital system is overcrowded, said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Virginia. “If we can find alternatives for people that are in the community, that are not in jail, it would make it easier for people in jail to get a bed in the state hospital.”

Deeds said possible solutions being examined by his subcommittee include:

§  Diverting less serious offenders to treatment facilities, instead of prisons and jails. “If you have a real diversion program, you reduce the number of people with serious mental illness that are in our jails and prisons,” the senator said.

§  Providing treatment services and programs to inmates to lower recidivism. “You’ve got to make sure that the jails and prisons, the jails in particular, have a real connection with mental health,” Deeds said.

§  Offering treatment options for inmates being discharged to ease their reentry into society.

“All of that is pretty ambitious,” Deeds said. “We need to be looking at the whole person and the way we can treat them.”

Recent Developments in Mental Health Reforms in Virginia’s Jails

§  2014: An online bed registry is launched to expedite the search for available psychiatric care.

§  2016: Gov. Terry McAuliffe requests nearly $32 million from the General Assembly to update and standardize mental health care in correctional facilities across the state.

§  2016-17: More jail officers receive crisis intervention training.

§  July 2017: A new law requires mental illness screening for people booked into jails.

§  2018: The General Assembly approves a bill granting correctional facilities the authority to treat individuals incapable of giving consent. That gives correctional staff the same authority as those employed by psychiatric institutions.

More Greyhounds May Need Homes if Florida Bans Racing

 

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Greyhound rescue organizations in Virginia and elsewhere may see an influx of dogs needing adoption if Florida decides to ban greyhound racing.

Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission is considering putting such a ban on a statewide ballot in November. Florida has 12 greyhound racing tracks.

If voters approve the constitutional amendment, Florida would “phase out the racing over the next several years,” said Mark Lane, president of James River Greyhounds, a nonprofit dog-adoption organization, and Greyt Love Retirement, a foster shelter for retired greyhounds awaiting adoption.

Lane said the constitutional amendment being considered in Florida doesn’t address the future of retired racers and “finding a home for the vast number of racing greyhounds that would be without a career.”

Early Life and Racing

Kristen Avent, foster coordinator for James River Greyhounds, said the race dogs are not inhumanely taken from their families to immediately start training.

“Basically, from birth, they’re with their littermates and their mama,” Avent said. “Then, when they go to their kennels, they have all the dogs with them and they have the trainers there.”

James River Greyhounds has formed relationships with racetracks in Alabama and Florida. The organization arranges foster and adoptive homes when racing greyhounds from those tracks are retired.

“We’ve been down to the racetrack facilities in Birmingham, Alabama, and Daytona, Florida. The dogs are well taken care of,” Avent said. “The people at the track absolutely love them, they have dog treats for them and play with them — that sort of thing.”

Florida state Sen. Tom Lee, a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, said many racing greyhounds “live in inhumane conditions” and face mistreatment. However, Avent said the dogs:

● Are let out into the yard at least four times per day

● Practice racing around the track

● Sometimes get to go on car rides around the facilities

● Eat well

● Have constant company

Life After Racing

Avent said greyhounds usually have a smooth transition after their racing days.

“When you get them off the tracks when they retire, they’re sweet and easy to bring into a home because they’re already used to being handled by people,” Avent said.

Greyhounds are made available for adoption as early as 21 months old. But ultimately, the determinant is their racing ability, or lack thereof.

“When you bring them into a house, you just have to teach them, sometimes, how to use steps,” Avent said. “Then they just have to learn about furniture and things like that. But they learn very quickly, and they’re extremely loving. They love to be with you.”

Why Greyhounds?

“When deciding what type of dog that I wanted to adopt, I came across the retired racing greyhound breed and found them to be extremely laid-back, awesome personality and a very regal breed overall,” Lane said. “Once I adopted my first, the rest has been history, and I don’t regret it at all.”

Avent said the dogs’ sweet disposition and gentle nature won her over.

“They’re very affectionate, are eager to go anywhere you want to go — they want to be with you,” she said.

Lane said among his favorite greyhound mannerisms and attributes are:

● The greyhound roo, a sound they make that is a mix of barks, grunts and whines

● Their teeth chattering

● Their relaxed demeanor. Lane said a greyhound is “a 45-mph couch potato” that sleeps for most of the day.

Greyhound Adoption

“The importance of greyhound adoption is that once these athletes are finished their careers, they make awesome pets,” Lane said. “Adoption groups all over the U.S. and Canada fill the need to find appropriate retirement homes for these wonderful retired racing greyhounds.”

Lane started Greyt Love Retirement for two main reasons.

“The first was that I wanted to build a facility to be able to bring more retired racing greyhounds to the Richmond area to continue to educate about, advocate for and adopt out the retired racing greyhound,” he said. “The second was a realization that some potential applicants wanted to touch, feel and connect with their new family member, and JRG (James River Greyhounds) could not facilitate that request without having a foster shelter with potential available hounds.”

Besides the two groups headed by Lane, there is an organization called Around Town Hounds, which holds monthly walks and other events for members of the Richmond greyhound community.

“I have found that once you adopt a greyhound, you are now involved with a tighter knit community of dog owners,” Lane said. “As adopters, we rely on each other for dog sitting, being a knowledge bank of questions and answers, playdates and general camaraderie.”

Cancer Center Would Honor ‘Immortal’ Henrietta Lacks

 

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The year was 1951. The place: Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where Henrietta Lacks, a native of Halifax County, Virginia, sought treatment for cervical cancer.

Doctors made a remarkable discovery about Lacks’ tumor: The cells remained alive and multiplied outside her body, creating the first immortal cell line. Since then, her cells have helped researchers develop the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization and other medical breakthroughs.

Lacks was never compensated for her contribution to science. She died in 1951 and was buried in an unmarked grave in her hometown.

Now, Virginia plans to recognize Lacks by establishing a cancer research and treatment center in her name in Halifax County. The General Assembly recently approved legislation authorizing the project to honor the woman who gave the medical world the immortal HeLa cell line.

It is a fitting tribute, said Adele Newson-Horst, vice president of the nonprofit Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group.

“Her cells were and continue to be an astronomical asset to the scientific and medical world,” Newson-Horst said. “The significance of her contribution to the world – not Virginia, not just Maryland, but the world – cannot be overstated.”

The General Assembly unanimously passed two bills – House Bill 1415 and Senate Bill 171 – to create the Henrietta Lacks Commission, which will have nine members, including state officials, representatives of the Lacks family and local officials from Halifax County.

The commission’s goal will be to establish a public-private partnership to create the Henrietta Lacks Life Sciences Center in Halifax County. The center would use biodata tools to conduct cancer research, provide cancer treatment to rural Southside Virginia and incubate biotech businesses in the region.

Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, and Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, sponsored the legislation at the request of the Halifax Industrial Development Authority. Edmunds called the project “a great economic driver for Halifax County” and said it “will hopefully bring some answers as to why the cancer rate is so high.”

“I would love to see new technology and techniques developed in a new center here,” Edmunds said.

Science has advanced significantly since Lacks’ treatment at Johns Hopkins. In recent years, attention has focused on the ethics surrounding her case: Cells were taken from her body without her consent. Some said that was wrong; others said it reflected medical ethics of the time. Moreover, Lacks was an African-American woman from a poor family, and some wondered whether race was a factor.

Those issues were explored in a 2010 book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the basis for an HBO movie that came out last year. Last week, The New York Times published a belated obituary about Lacks, who the newspaper said had been overlooked when she died 66 years ago.

Belated recognition is what the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority had in mind when it proposed the Henrietta Lacks Life Sciences Center.

“She left Halifax County … in the 1940s because of the lack of economic opportunities for African-American women. We’re trying to change that and bring her legacy back,” said Matt Leonard, the authority’s executive director.

He said the agency ran the idea by two of Lacks’ grandchildren and members of her legacy group.

“We got an immediate, very positive response from the family which we’re absolutely and imminently grateful for, because without their support, their championing this to their family and to other members of the community, we couldn’t do this project,” Leonard said.

Henrietta Lacks’ granddaughter Jerri Lacks said the family wholeheartedly supports the effort.

“Words can’t explain how excited I am just to be part of the commission and to know that our grandmother is being honored in such a great way,” Lacks said. “What I hope it will accomplish is that people will be more aware of her contributions to science, and her legacy can continue to give people hope for a better life.”

Virginia Offers Salute to Women Veterans

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – More than 100,000 women veterans live in Virginia, and in observance of Women’s History Month, the General Assembly has decided to honor them by designating the third week of March each year as Women Veterans Week.

On Monday, the Senate joined the House in passing House Joint Resolution 76, sponsored by Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax.

Murphy, a self-described “military brat,” said Virginia has one of the highest populations of women veterans in the country. “We put together Women Veterans Week to honor them,” she said.

A member of the Board of Veterans Services and head of its Women’s Veterans Committee, Murphy will hold a series of discussions around the commonwealth during Women Veterans Week. The goal is to inform women veterans about the resources available to them and discuss their concerns.

“Women are the fastest growing segment of the veteran population, and they face unique challenges both in the military and when they transition to civilian life,” Murphy said. “We’re going to hold a series of roundtables so we can actually hear from these women veterans about what it is they need to ensure that they come back into our workforce and are successful.”

U.S. Army veteran Jeanne Minnix said it’s important to recognize the contributions of women veterans.

“Women have often been underrepresented, often under-acknowledged if you will, but it’s changing, thankfully,” Minnix said. “Anything to bring women’s issues to the forefront is always good.”

Women Veterans Week will be March 18-24. Information about the week’s events can be found on the website of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.

Monument Honoring Virginia Native Tribes Awaits Ceremony

With the Capitol in the Background, the Square's newest monument - honoring the Native American Tribes in Virginia - awaits dedication. (CNS photo by Yasmine Jumaa)

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After years of planning and several months of construction, a monument honoring the lives, legacy and achievements of Native American tribes in Virginia has been completed and now stands on the grounds of the state Capitol.

State officials are planning a ribbon cutting for the monument on April 17.

“I think everyone who has seen it is very much in awe and approves of what has been installed,” said Del. Christopher Peace, R-Hanover, vice chairman of the Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission.

The monument, titled “Mantle,” gets its name from Powhatan’s Mantle, a deerskin cloak said to be worn by the Native American chief. Its spiral shape was inspired by the nautilus, the self-replicating living fossil. Commission member Frances Broaddus-Crutchfield said the design symbolizes the endurance of Native American tribes.

The spiral shape was inspired by the nautilus, the self-replicating living fossil. (CNS photo by Yasmine Jumaa)

“We wanted natural materials but also something that would endure, and that’s how we came up with stone,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said. “Once you get to the center of it, there’s a meditation area with an infinity pool.” Engraved on the infinity pool are the names of the rivers in Virginia that have Native American names, such as Appomattox and Nottoway.

After reviewing submissions from several artists, Broaddus-Crutchfield said the commission appointed Mohawk installation artist Alan Michelson to create “Mantle.”

“We interviewed various artists, and Alan Michelson was the one who had the concept that we thought best represented what we were aiming for, which was the walkway,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said.

Here is how Michelson described the monument on the commission’s website:

“[Mantle] requires the visitor to neither look up nor look down, but invites one to enter – from the east – and participate in it. It is not conceived as a static monument to be venerated but an active one to be experienced by moving off the everyday grid and into the American Indian circle.”

The monument, titled "Mantle," lists the state's Indian tribes. (CNS photo by Yasmine Jumaa)

“We wanted natural materials but also something that would endure, and that’s how we came up with stone,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said. “Once you get to the center of it, there’s a meditation area with an infinity pool.” Engraved on the infinity pool are the names of the rivers in Virginia that have Native American names, such as Appomattox and Nottoway.

After reviewing submissions from several artists, Broaddus-Crutchfield said the commission appointed Mohawk installation artist Alan Michelson to create “Mantle.”

“We interviewed various artists, and Alan Michelson was the one who had the concept that we thought best represented what we were aiming for, which was the walkway,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said.

Here is how Michelson described the monument on the commission’s website:

“[Mantle] requires the visitor to neither look up nor look down, but invites one to enter – from the east – and participate in it. It is not conceived as a static monument to be venerated but an active one to be experienced by moving off the everyday grid and into the American Indian circle.”

Reston Teen Skates Her Way to Olympic Winter Games

Maame Biney (center) and other skaters, Courtesy of Maame Biney

 

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

Eighteen-year-old Maame Biney of Reston is breaking ice, and records, as the first African-American woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic short-track speedskating team after two 500-meter victories at her December trials.

Born in Ghana, Biney came to the U.S. when she was 5 to visit her father, Kweku, and never left. It didn’t take long before Biney was drawn to an ice rink, after her father pointed out a sign that advertised figure skating classes.

“We were driving down this street right here – Sunset Hills Road,” Kweku Biney told The Washington Post. “I saw the sign in front of the rink. It said, ‘Learn to skate.’ I asked her, ‘Maame, you want to try this?’”

Biney jumped at the opportunity. She was so fast the instructor suggested she try speedskating.

Biney started in Kids on Ice, a beginner speedskating program in Washington. That meant the Bineys had to wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to the Fort Dupont Ice Arena by 6 a.m. The practices were led by three-time Olympian Nathaniel Mills, who said he was in awe of Maame Biney’s dedication.

“She wasn’t deterred by the fact that she was taking up a difficult sport,” Mills told Capital News Service. “She came to the rink every Saturday morning eager to learn.”

Mills, who now runs DC Inner City Excellence, a year-round skating-based youth development program, said Biney’s passion and perseverance distinguish her from other skaters.

“She’s more explosive of a skater than many of her peers in the United States, and her tenacity as a competitor also sets her apart,” Mills said. “Her own drive, her father’s sacrifices and her love of skating and competing are the three biggest factors to any athlete’s success – and Maame’s got all three.”

Mills said Biney’s father played a significant role in his daughter’s success, putting “every penny he made into her career and into her opportunities.”

Biney is the youngest woman on the U.S. short-track team. At this year’s games, she is up against competitors who have the home turf advantage: 21 of South Korea’s 26 winter gold medals have come from short-track speedskating.

Biney will compete in the 500- and 1,500-meter races. She has an upper hand at the shorter distance since setting a personal record at the Olympic trials of 43.161 seconds in the 500-meter race.

This is just the beginning for Biney, Mills said.

“I think the confidence that came with her performance at the trials, coupled with the experience she’s going to get at these games, will lead to her being among the favorites in the next Olympics in Beijing, China,” Mills said. “She’ll be one of the marquee athletes because her personality is real and her talent is next level.”

Biney has garnered fans across the country and even the world. It’s because she’s so relatable, Mills said.

“I know who she is and what she’s doing means a lot to a whole lot of people that identify themselves by their nation’s state of Ghana, or by being a woman, or because of her skin color, or being from Northern Virginia,” Mills said. “Maame’s pretty easy to root for.”

According to her profile on the Team USA website, Biney is wrapping up her senior year of high school through online courses and plans to study chemical engineering in college. At South Lakes High School in Reston, Biney is best known for her happy-go-lucky demeanor.

“She is so funny and takes everything so positively,” Biney’s former classmate Kriti Shukla said. “She is the most open and happy person in the class.”

Salamander Wriggling Its Way Into State Law

 

By Sarah Danial and Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill slithering through the legislative process would designate the red salamander as Virginia’s official state salamander. If the amphibious creature gets the honor, it can thank a group of young nature conservationists.

The Salamander Savers is a 4-H Club based in Fairfax whose members, age 8 to 18, are determined to find solutions for environmental problems. The club started in 2015 when three children wanted to save salamanders from a local lake.

“When our lake was dredged and my kids asked me questions that I could not answer, as a home-schooling mother, I made it my mission to try to find answers to their questions,” said Anna Kim, the club’s adult leader and mother of Jonah Kim, 14, the club’s president.

Her children asked what would happen to the animals living in or near the lake. They were concerned to learn that dredging can disrupt their environment, which could eventually lead to possible extinction. Jonah’s mother recalled her son’s words.

“He once told me that he wanted to give a voice to the animals who couldn’t speak for themselves,” Anna Kim said.

As a result, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, is sponsoring HB 459, which would add the red salamander (officially, Pseudotriton ruber) to the state’s list of official designations. The list currently includes 35 items, from the official beverage (milk) and rock (Nelsonite) to the official television series (“Song of the Mountains,” a PBS program showcasing Appalachian music).

Filler-Corn hopes her bill will inspire the 4H Club members to get involved politically.

“I am excited to introduce these bright young activists to the civic process,” Filler-Corn said. “It is my hope that this is just the beginning of their engagement with government and that they will continue their advocacy for years to come.”

The bill was approved by a subcommittee on a 6-2 vote last week. The House General Laws Committee is scheduled to consider the bill Tuesday.

Jonah Kim and his fellow 4-H’ers thought carefully about which salamander species should represent Virginia.

“We chose the red salamander because it lives in a variety of different habitats throughout Virginia,” he said. “We thought it was easily recognizable and would be interesting to people who have never seen a salamander.”

He said the club hopes the legislation will help raise awareness of salamanders, a species less tolerant of environmental disruptions than frogs and other amphibians. The Salamander Savers are encouraging the public to write a letter to their legislators stating their support.

 

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Delegates Tout Bills to Improve Prison Workers’ Jobs

By Yasmine Jumaa and Brandon Celentano,Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Correctional officers from across Virginia watched Tuesday as a state lawmaker urged support for legislation aimed at reducing turnover among prison guards and making it easier for them to get workers’ compensation.

“I think currently we have a tremendous injustice going on,” said Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun. “Out of the 14 [categories of] peace officers in Virginia, the only peace officer who does not get the presumption of disability is our correctional officer.”

Bell is sponsoring House Bill 107, which would add correctional officers to the list of public safety employees entitled to receive workers’ compensation under the presumption that hypertension, heart disease and other ailments may stem from their stressful jobs. Bell said some correctional officers develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The stress levels on officers is very high, which could lead to a variety of different heart diseases over prolonged periods of time,” Bell said. “It’s a tough and hazardous job where officers have been measured with PTSD that far exceeds combat veterans.”

Bell has also introduced HB 108, which would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to conduct an exit survey of correctional officers who quit. The survey would ask them about work conditions and other concerns that may contribute to high turnover.

Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, said low salaries may be a factor.

“You have to work two, three jobs sometimes to address your needs and your family’s because your salaries aren’t up to par to make a living,” said Tyler, who is co-sponsoring the two bills. “That is just totally unreasonable.”

According to the Department of Corrections, 1,164 DOC employees, including 698 correctional officers, have salaries so low that they may be eligible for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

A 2017 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said correctional officers’ difficult jobs and low salaries may hurt attracting and retaining employees. Virginia prison guards had a 17 percent turnover rate over the past two years, and 16 percent of the positions have been vacant, the study said.

HB 107 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Labor Committee. On Tuesday, the subcommittee voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the bill.

HB 108 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

Panel OKs Bill Targeting Child Abusers in School

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In 2013, a loophole allowed an Arlington County teacher accused of sexual abuse to find a job as an assistant principal in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he worked for more than three years before his license was revoked last May.

In hopes of closing that loophole, a committee in the Virginia House of Delegates has unanimously approved legislation aimed at identifying alleged sex offenders who have worked in the state’s public schools so they can’t move to another school system.

“Unfortunately, what happened during the summer revealed that there were several gaps in Virginia law,” said Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the measure. “As a result, the person was able to hold on to his teaching license for another four years without anybody realizing that there was a problem.”

Under existing law, local departments of social services must notify the relevant school district of any founded allegations of child abuse or neglect against a current school employee.

But that didn’t happen in Arlington because the teacher resigned before Child Protective Service agents finished their investigation, according to a report by the News4 I-Team at the NBC4 television station in Washington. As a result, the teacher’s license wasn’t challenged – and he went on to land a job at Thomas Johnson Middle School in Prince George’s County, the station reported.

So Bulova filed HB 150, which would require child protection officials to notify school authorities even if the subject of the investigation is no longer employed by the school district. Moreover, such notification must be made “without delay,” the bill says.

“What the current law says is, at the time that the local child protective services determines that an incident is a founding case for child abuse, then they let the school system know if the person involved is employed as a teacher,” Bulova said. “In this case, because the person had already resigned, that didn’t happen.”

The Virginia Commission on Youth brought the issue to Bulova’s attention.

“The Commission on Youth pulled together information on the process of child abuse reporting as it relates to teachers and education,” said Amy Atkinson, the agency’s executive director. “We presented related findings and recommendations at our November meeting, and in December, our commission voted on those recommendations, and one of them was Del. Bulova’s bill.”

Bulova also is sponsoring HB 196, which would limit how many extensions somebody accused of child abuse or neglect by a local department of social services could get during the appeals process.

The bill says accused individuals can request to extend their hearing twice for a total maximum of 90 days. After that, they would have to provide good cause to the hearing officer before being granted more extensions.

“It makes sure that you’re not dragging this out for a long time,” Bulova said.

He said the bills would help ensure that information flows smoothly during a child abuse or neglect investigation and that licensure issues are taken care of in a timely manner.

“The great vast majority of teachers are absolutely wonderful people and do extraordinarily beautiful jobs,” Bulova said. “These are really ways to go ahead and tighten up the code so you don’t have outliers that will fall through the cracks. And while they are few and far between, they’re a big deal for the families and children that have to deal with them.”

On Thursday, the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions voted 22-0 in favor of both bills. They now go to the full House for consideration.

Transportation Secretary Defends Tolls on I-66

By Ryan Persaud and Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A month after the fury over what many drivers considered excessive tolls on Interstate 66, Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne defended the tolls, saying they are necessary for increasing the flow of traffic on the highway in Northern Virginia.

The tolls, which vary based on demand and amount of traffic, have reached as high as $44 for a 10-mile drive since they were implemented on Dec. 4.

“I would’ve anticipated that happening a lot lower than the $44, but it did not,” Layne said. “People chose to pay it, but it was a choice. Our other option is we could just limit the road when it reaches a certain level [to] HOV users. The issue with that is that we’re taking away that choice for the people who want to pay it.”

Layne spoke Tuesday to the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability. His report came a month after Del. Tim Hugo of Fairfax, who chairs the House Republican Caucus, called the I-66 tolls “exorbitant” and “unacceptable.”

The tolling is in effect weekdays only, during rush hours and in the peak direction, on about 10 miles of I-66, from Route 29 in Rosslyn to Interstate 495.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, said the high tolls are a result of a lack of state funding for road projects.

“This is all symptomatic of not having enough money to begin with to build the highways,” Wagner said. “We’re having to do these unique types of programs to build these highways.”

Del.-elect Danica Roem, a Democrat from Manassas, told Layne about constituents hit hard by the tolls. They included a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who must drive by himself as a part of his treatment. The constituent said that avoiding the tolls added 45 minutes to his commute.

Layne insisted that commuters can take alternate routes such as Route 50 and the George Washington Memorial Parkway. But another constituent Roem spoke to said he commutes from Manassas Park to Georgetown and cannot take any alternate pathways. The driver stated that he does not know how to budget his money due to the varying tolls.

“That’s the beast of the dynamic tolling process: You don’t know what it’s going to be each day until the time you get there because it’s basically volume control,” Roem said. “He [the constituent from Manassas Park] had a number of concerns with this.”

Layne said the revenue from the tolls goes toward funding other transportation projects.

“They will help pay for the road construction; they will help pay for multi-modal transportation and operation of the road,” Layne said.

After monitoring the corridors surrounding I-66 and alternative routes, Layne said that so far the data indicated no significant change in travel time on those routes.

“We need to continue to monitor this, and it may require that we do adjustments, but as of right now we do not see any significant impact to these parallel corridors,” Layne said.

Last month, Hugo released a statement criticizing Layne and Gov. Terry McAuliffe on the toll rates.

“Governor McAuliffe has gone on TV several times this week saying $40 toll prices are the way ‘it’s supposed to work.’ I could not disagree more,” Hugo said. “The hard-working people of Northern Virginia should not be forced to get a part-time job to be able to afford to drive to their full-time job.”

These are Layne’s final days as the commonwealth’s secretary of transportation. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has appointed former Lynchburg lawmaker Shannon Valentine to the position.

New laws seek to enhance driver safety

By Yasmine Jumaa, VCU Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In 2015, a driver with severe vision problems hit and killed a bicyclist in Hanover County. The motorist was “basically legally blind,” recalled Del. Hyland “Buddy” Fowler, who represents the county in the Virginia House.

Now the state is about to implement two new laws to help prevent such tragedies. One will require motorists to have a wider field of vision, and the other will encourage health-care professionals to report motorists who have medical problems that may impair their driving. Fowler sponsored both bills, which will take effect July 1.

“The folks at the Virginia Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons took a look at the vision requirements and came to me and said, ‘You need to do better for the public safety issue,’ and wanted to know if I’d carry a bill in the House, which I told them I’d be glad to do,” said Fowler, whose district includes parts of Hanover, Caroline and Spotsylvania counties.

House Bill 1504sets new standards for obtaining and keeping a driver’s license or learner’s permit. It will increase the minimum field of vision that a driver must have in Virginia from 100 degrees to 110 degrees. That means drivers must have a greater ability to see what is on the periphery as well as what is in front of them.

“Being able to see properly and being able to scan the roads is a very important part of safe driving,” said Brandy Brubaker, public relations and media liaison for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

HB 1514,alsocarriedbyFowler, gives doctors and other health-care professionals civil immunity if they report patients who have vision or other medical problems that may impair their ability to drive safely.

The law will protect health-care practitioners from legal action if they tell DMV that they believe someone has a disability or impairment and shouldn’t be driving. For instance, the motorist could not sue the physician for violating practitioner-patient confidentiality.

“With that act of good faith, if they report somebody to the DMV to be examined, and if they suspect that the person shouldn’t be driving for legitimate health reasons, they will be protected from a legal situation,” Fowler said. He believes the law will foster “a greater reporting of folks that probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel.”

DMV officials said they already protect the identity of people who tell the agency that somebody may be an unsafe driver because of vision or health concerns.

“We get these reports from law enforcement, family members, maybe even neighbors, and we are prohibited to release information on the source for those medical reports that we receive,” Brubaker said.

When DMV receives such reports, she said, “We review cases of drivers who may have health or medical conditions that would impair or hinder their safe driving.”

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County sponsored companion bills to Fowler’s legislation: SB 1229was identical to HB 1504,andSB 1024wasthesameas HB 1514. The General Assembly approved all four bills during its 2017 session.

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