Youngkin calls for reform to state's 'overwhelmed' mental health system after Otieno's death

Posted at 4:20 PM, Mar 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-21 10:05:09-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- For the first time publicly on Monday, Governor Glenn Youngkin addressed the death of 28-year-old Irvo Otieno. Ten people, including sheriff's deputies and hospital staff, are charged with second-degree murder in Otieno's death.

“Let me just begin with Mr. Otieno’s death is heart-wrenching," Youngkin said. “I just ask everyone to lift up his family in prayers.”

On Thursday, Otieno's family watched the video of him dying inside a state-run psychiatric hospital, which happened on March 6. His family members and lawyers said Henrico County deputies and Central State Hospital employees could be seen forcefully pushing down on Otieno's body as he lay on the ground in shackles.

During a press conference, Otieno's family called for changes to how authorities and professionals treat people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

“At what point do we consider mental illness a crime?” said Otieno's brother, Leon Ochieng.

“Mental illness should not be your ticket to death," said Otieno's mother, Caroline Ouko. “I don’t understand how all systems failed him.”

It's a system that Governor Glenn Youngkin believes is in desperate need of reform, adding there's a "mismatch between demand and capacity."

“We also can just see the heart-wrenching nature of the challenges in our behavioral health system and why I think it is so important that we press forward with aggressive transformation of that system," Youngkin said Monday. "What we have is a system that is built today and overwhelmed today with the in-crisis moment, and where we are so lacking is pre-crisis services."

The governor has proposed a $230 million investment into the behavioral health system. The complete plan is still undergoing budget negotiations.

It includes $58 million for crisis receiving centers. Otieno was originally being treated at a crisis receiving center at Henrico Doctors' Hospital. That's where Henrico Police took him on March 3 after determining he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

However, Henrico Police removed him from that hospital after they said he was assaultive toward police officers and took him to the Henrico Jail instead. Otieno stayed at the jail through March 6 when he was transported to Central State and died.

Youngkin said he wants Virginia's psychiatric hospitals, such as Central State, to be fully equipped to handle patients who are in need of the services provided by the facilities "as opposed to it being the default place where everyone goes."

The governor's proposal includes $20 million for partnerships with hospitals for alternatives to emergency departments for crises. The governor's spokesperson said this component of the proposal will help increase bed capacity for patients.

He also proposed $20 million for mobile crisis teams to respond to 988 calls, which serves as the suicide and crisis lifeline.

“So that in fact we can go meet people where they are and decriminalize the process," Youngkin said.

Along with seven deputies, three Central State Hospital employees are charged with second-degree murder in Otieno's death. Youngkin said the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which is the agency that oversees Central State, is assisting in the investigation.

“Do you believe that facilities like Central State Hospital have enough oversight to ensure that staff are following proper protocols and have proper training to deal with those in crisis?” reporter Tyler Layne asked Governor Youngkin.

“There are protocols, and we will review to ensure they are being followed," Youngkin responded. “The first thing we have to see is what happened in this circumstance and as I’ve said, there’s an ongoing investigation. I do know that the oversight of facilities across Virginia has protocols and I know the team that does it. I know they give it all they have.”

CBS 6 reached out to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services with questions about the protocols for intake at Central State Hospital and is still awaiting a response.

Youngkin said he plans to watch the video of Otieno's final moments at Central State Hospital once released Tuesday. He asked Virginians to respect the judicial process as it plays out.

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