When Jarrod Bruder, director of the South Carolina Sheriffs' Association, sat before a S.C. Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday, he said he was there to “humbly plead for help.”
Five months after two Horry County sheriff’s deputies drove into Hurricane Florence floodwaters where the two mentally ill women locked in the back of a van drowned, Bruder is not only looking for changes in how mental health patients are transported but also hopes to win funding for sheriff's departments.
Not all of them have the money to cover costs for thousands of transports a year, he said.
“We’re not really equipped to do this type of work,” Bruder said. “This is a mental health issue. This is a health care issue. This is not a law enforcement matter.”
A bill from state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, addresses a main issue from the drownings near Nichols — how not to treat mentally ill patients like criminals — but does not include extra funding. That will have to come in budget talks.
The proposal calls for requiring local and state law enforcement officers tasked with transporting mentally ill patients to undergo mental health crisis and intervention training.
If passed, the bill also would also require the physician responsible for the patient to notify a relative or friend that they’re allowed to transport the patient to a mental health facility themselves.
Kimpson said that in a mental health crisis, a physician’s initial reaction shouldn’t be to call law enforcement.
The women who died in the Sept. 18 accident, 43-year-old Nicolette Green of Myrtle Beach and 45-year-old Wendy Newton of Shallotte, N.C., both sought help that day.
Green was taken from a mental health clinic to a detention center for evaluation to a hospital in Loris where staff sent her to another facility, Kimpson said. Though state law allows patients’ relatives to take them to the mental-care facilities, Kimpson said Green’s daughter was not given the option.
“Your (sheriff's) department shouldn’t have to bear all the responsibility of transports,” Kimpson said to Bruder.
Kimpson said the state Department of Mental Health helped add a section to his bill that clarifies the role of families in transporting mentally ill patients, though some senators asked whether the state agency should take control of transportation.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said patient transport is a mental health issue more so than a law enforcement issue, so it’s important that the Department of Mental Health work together with local governments to make a change.
“I think it’s important that we bring in law enforcement to talk about it,” Davis said. “You bring in the counties and the municipalities, you bring in some of these hospitals that have their own systems, and you figure out what you have, and then you try to come up with something that’s cost-efficient and safely does the job.”
Kimpson said he recognizes that changing how mental health patients are treated and transported will take time.
No vote was taken on the bill Wednesday. Kimpson said he hope to vote on the bill at the next subcommittee hearing possibly as early as next week.
“This is just a start,” Kimpson said. “Doing nothing is unacceptable, and I won’t let that happen.”