Harrisonburg mental health expert keeping eye on rollout of behavioral crisis response system

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

Harrisonburg and Rockingham County will reap the benefits of learning from others when the time comes to roll out new, state-mandated protocols for addressing emergencies involving behavioral health.

Last December, the Marcus Alert System began in five designated pilot locations elsewhere in Virginia. The program, created by the General Assembly in 2020, is named after Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old Black man killed by Richmond police in 2018 amid a mental health crisis. The goal of the Marcus Alert is to provide a behavioral health response to behavioral health emergencies. Local implementation of the Marcus Alert System is scheduled for 2026.

Having time to observe these pilot programs in other parts of the state and plan a local program is a good thing, said Ellen Harrison, executive director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board.

“This was fast-tracked and while people want to see action when you have a terrible event and they want to see outcomes that are better than what we’ve seen in the past, nothing good comes out of moving too fast,” Harrison said.

There’s nothing wrong with the system’s intent, Harrison said, noting that it brings together law enforcement and behavioral health experts to respond to behavioral health emergencies. The system aims to formalize planning and create processes for communities to respond to those situations with the best possible outcomes – but won’t come easy or without costs, she said.

“It will take a tremendous amount of work ahead of time for all of us to have conversations about what we bring to the table and how best to go about it, so a nice methodical rollout is always best in these types of situations,” Harrison said.

Agencies that would likely be involved in crafting a Marcus Alert system locally, Harrison said, include the Harrisonburg Police Department, the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office, Sentara RMH, the emergency 911 system, magistrates and private service providers.

“It really is a comprehensive approach to behavioral health emergencies,” she said.

With four years to go before Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are required to have a Marcus Alert System in place, changes in the law seem likely. Harrison said she has heard rumors already about some changes, but nothing formally.

State Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Westmoreland) introduced a bill (SB 361) in January that would make implementing the system optional. Following some amendments, the bill passed the Senate last week and now states the system would be optional for localities with fewer than 40,000 people.

Harrison said she has not discussed Marcus Alert with General Assembly representatives of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

“As we get a little bit closer to moving forward with this locality, we’ll be having conversations about what the intent in this locality is and the expectations and the true cost of it,” she said.

Del. Tony Wilt, a Republican who represents Harrisonburg and a large chunk of Rockingham County, said in an email he was concerned the bill added a new layer of bureaucracy and “seemed redundant and unnecessary.”

“First, we already have the crisis intervention team (CIT) model that has been or is being implemented successfully in most localities,” he said.

Wilt said he was also concerned by language in the legislation that indicated that law enforcement may not or would not take the lead or be the first in as part of the team addressing a crisis.

“This is concerning to me because the mental health professionals I’ve talked with indicate they are not comfortable being the first contact on certain situations that can be extremely unstable and dangerous,” he said.

City of Harrisonburg spokesman Mike Parks and Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said in emails to The Citizen that it’s a little too soon to say much about Marcus Alert.

“We are currently in the information gathering stage, and having conversations with our partners and peers about this process so we are ready to go when the time comes,” Parks said.

Hutcheson said there are a lot of details to consider and that a lot of things could change.

“Our efforts are still in the preliminary phases at this time, so I do not feel it is right to speculate about it. We will stay abreast of the requirements and try to plan ahead as best as possible,” he said.

Harrison said this area already has some mobile crisis response that is both a co-response with law enforcement and behavioral health professionals, and some ability to respond to children’s crisis situations that is just behavioral health, “but it would by no means meet the demands or the expectations of the Marcus Alert bill.”

The way the bill stands now, she said, requires bringing together new resources and people in a new way of doing business that would need additional funding.

An area served by Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services, which includes Culpeper, received a $600,000 state grant to pilot the program in its five-county area, according to an April 25 story in the Rappahannock News. Like Harrisonburg-Rockingham, RRCS is part of Region 1 under the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

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