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July 23, 2012

House Bill 311

After a great deal of work by many mental health stakeholders in Delaware, House Bill 311 was signed into law by Governor Markell on July 24, 2012. This bill makes updates to the language of the Delaware Code regarding 24-hour holds on people presumed to be in psychiatric crisis. It also adds a credentialed mental health screener to the list of people who can respond to a person in crisis, hopefully directing that person to appropriate services instead of the emergency room and/or psychiatric institutions.

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WILMINGTON — Bill Mason figured the two people in handcuffs, flanked by police, had tried to steal something from the hospital gift shop or been involved in some incident on the grounds.

But MeadowWood Hospital has no gift shop. There had been no incident. The people were simply arriving – in typical Delaware fashion – for an emergency mental health evaluation.

Such a sight was rare in Pennsylvania, where Mason was working at another facility at the time of his first visit to MeadowWood about four years ago. Now chief executive officer at MeadowWood, Mason said he was glad to be present Tuesday morning when Gov. Jack Markell signed H.B. 311 into law, changing the way Delaware will handle such emergency evaluations.

The goal is to allow credentialed screeners to evaluate the needs of a person in a mental health crisis in the community, and steer him or her to the most appropriate service.

That should mean less police involvement, fewer visits to emergency rooms and more efficient, better-targeted care.

“It’s a great day for Delaware,” said Jamie Prince of Newark, who has taken such a handcuffed ride himself.

The police car isn’t a big deal, he said. It’s a temporary thing, meant to protect the person and the police officer. “But this is a great step in the right direction.”

The change in the screening law was one of the first recommendations made by Robert Bernstein, the court-appointed monitor of state reforms at the Delaware Psychiatric Center.

The law will be phased in – starting in January – as training and other regulations are developed.

“The devil will be in the details, but this is the beginning of the process,” said Dr. Karen Kovacic, a psychiatrist with Horizon House. “How it moves forward will be incredibly important.”

While the General Assembly was debating last month whether to change the law, William Jenkins, 68, of near Clayton, was in a room at MeadowWood, south of New Castle. He wound up there on May 31 in a strange twist of circumstances that started with a call to a medical supply firm in Virginia where he gets supplies to manage his diabetes.

Something he said to the operator alarmed her enough to call emergency officials in Delaware. Soon a police officer was at Jenkins’ door.

Jenkins, who is being treated for depression and anxiety, was handcuffed, placed in the back of the squad car and taken to a nearby hospital where, after about 24 hours, a social worker told him she would “err on the side of caution” and had him transported to MeadowWood. He was detained there for 15 days.

Jenkins said doctors and counselors urged him to “consider this a learning experience and get on with your life.”

“But no,” he said. “I’m sick of being beat down by a system that’s faulty and runs over top of you.”

Upset by his experience, Jenkins called Bryce Hewlett, executive director of the Delaware Consumers in Recovery Coalition, an advocacy group for those in recovery from mental illness. Hewlett said Jenkins’ experience might have been better under the new law.

“There were several times along the way that he could have had a decision made and been released,” Hewlett said. “Instead, the days accumulated into 15. … I hope that with the screeners, people are diverted to care that will help them more ably.”

Markell signed the bill at the Rick VanStory Resource Center, a drop-in center for those with psychiatric disorders, at Eighth and West streets in Wilmington.

“We have become advocates and champions for the people that have no voice,” said Allen Conover, executive director of the center, who has spent time as a patient in just about every Delaware psychiatric facility. “We all know the old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease – well, there are so many wheels that need dire help but don’t squeak. There are people who don’t have an advocate and people who don’t have a family.”

Conover applauded lawmakers – including bill sponsor Rep. Mike Barbieri, D-Newark – who worked to change the law.

“Legislative Hall is hearing our squeak and they’re changing stuff,” Conover said. “We were 15 years behind, now maybe we’re 10. I’m proud of this state. Look at what they’re doing.”

Contact Beth Miller at 324-2784 orbmiller@delawareonline.com.

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