New vehicles used to transport individuals under temporary detention orders to mental health treatment facilities look like the average vehicle on the outside. The unmarked Dodge SUVs give no indication who is inside and where they are headed and that’s part of the appeal.

Until the state-wide alternative transport program was rolled out Monday, those patients were hauled away to a hospital in the back of a police car, sometimes in handcuffs — a practice believed to be both traumatic to patients and burdensome to local law enforcement.

“Not only will this help alleviate the burden on law enforcement, but alternative transportation will help provide privacy and dignity for individuals under temporary detention orders,” said Cynthia McClaskey, director of the Southwest Virginia Mental Health Institute in Marion.

McClaskey and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam spoke to a small crowd gathered at the entrance of SWVMHI on Monday, where one of the new vehicles was on display during the rollout.

“These individuals were being transported by our law enforcement agents and they’re doing a wonderful job of doing that, but that’s perhaps not the best way to transport individuals for a couple of reasons,” Northam said.

He pointed out that local law enforcement have enough work on their hands as it is and when they’re out doing a transport, it takes them away from their assigned work. He said the move was also about treating people the way they should be treated.

“Individuals who have behavioral health issues shouldn’t be put in a car, handcuffed in a marked police car,” he said. “We can do better than that and that’s why we’re here.”

While the outside of the alternative transport vehicles are rather inconspicuous, the inside is designed with security in mind. Plexiglas partitions separate the front and back seats, as well as divide the backseat down the middle to allow for two simultaneous transports. Seatbelts that latch near the door decrease risks that may arise from reaching over an agitated patient and plastic a more hygienic place to sit. Incognito camera systems also help the driver monitor patients while they are in transport.

The drivers themselves are trained as unarmed security guards through the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. Part of that training includes de-escalation and crisis prevention and intervention.

The general assembly approved the three-year $7 million contract with private company G4S earlier this year. With six vehicles to serve the state, Marion will be the southernmost hub.

The new program is meant to alleviate part of the burden on local law enforcement agencies by taking on about half of the transports in the alternative vehicles.

When officers are called out on mental health transports, it’s up to the individual department to foot the bill for the man hours, fuel and wear and tear to patrol vehicles. It also pulls them from the communities they serve.

“This will be a tremendous savings for law enforcement,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association.

The association was a large supporter of the move and has pushed legislators for years to address the issue.

The program will be rolled out one region at a time, with the Region Three District of Virginia, which includes Southwest Virginia, kicking off the rollout.

The launch of the program in Marion was no accident, McClaskey noted. The new program builds on the success of a pilot program conducted by Mount Rogers Community Services in 2016.

McClaskey said the rollout was but one element of a new era of innovative behavioral health.

“We know that a more trauma-informed and person-centered approach to transports supports individual engagement and treatment, which helps boost positive outcomes,” she said. “It also serves to reduce the stigma for those who need an in-patient level of care.”

Northam, said that while a tremendous amount of work lay ahead in addressing the mental health needs of the commonwealth, Monday’s rollout was big step in the right direction.

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