By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: April 3, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.
‘Forgotten’ facility to get much-needed improvements under proposal
DINWIDDIE – After years of neglect and, in the eyes of some, being completely forgotten, major improvements are planned for Dinwiddie’s Central State Hospital as the state’s top leadership gears up to propose a multimillion replacement to the aging facility.
Last week, Governor Ralph Northam and members of his administration, including finance secretary Aubrey Layne and health and human resources secretary Daniel Carey toured Central State Hospital during a stop in the Tri-Cities, joined by the region’s General Assembly representatives Delegate Lashrecse Aird and State Senator Rosalyn Dance, which has operated since the late 1800s.
The reason for the governor’s visit was simple – to tour the aging facility first-hand and see some of the concerns being raised by those working at the facility and from local and state leaders who believe it is time to update the hospital to allow for better service delivery to the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable population while also unveiling his proposed budget amendment to help kickstart efforts to build a new facility on the sprawling 600-plus acre campus.
Central State Hospital complex
In his brief remarks following the tour, Governor Northam was direct about his views on the current state of the hospital.
“This is no longer the kind of hospital we want to have, nor one where we want to treat the most vulnerable among us,” he said.
During the budget process in Richmond, the governor had proposed design funds to help start the process of replacing the hospital but, according to administration representatives, “some legislators stated that the timeline for replacement was too long and the overall cost too high,” which was a seven-year timeline and a nearly $390 million price tag.
At last week’s press conference, Northam said the latest version of his proposed amendment shortens that timeline from seven years to five years while also reducing the total cost of the project from $385.1 million to $315 million, which still has to go before the General Assembly when legislators return in April.
“When the legislature returns for its reconvened session, I will propose budget amendments to authorize construction of a new facility at Central State Hospital that will be ready to occupy within five years,” Northam said last Monday. “We will plan for the construction of 300 beds, but only build 252 unless a workgroup convened by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services determines that additional beds are necessary. And we’ll make sure to look at other state properties to see if it is feasible to move capacity there.”
For local leaders in attendance, the proposed improvements to Central State Hospital is welcome news in their eyes for patients, employees, and the county as a whole.
“I think it is a great idea,” Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors Chairman William Chavis remarked. “I went in and looked at some rooms as we went on a tour and some of the rooms, well… the whole facility is outdated and in need of repair.”
The chairman, just like the governor on Monday, had toured the facility in the past and he said he was taken aback by the condition of a facility that is meant to serve those most in need of services.
“The facility is outdated,” Chavis said. “The bathrooms are in terrible shape, the whole thing is bad. I looked at some of the rooms and it was pitiful. What does an environment like that do to the people you’re trying to help?”
Those thoughts were echoed by Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill who also attended last week’s event, noting, while work has been done to address some needs and deficiencies, the time has come to replace the facility.
“Since I have been here, dating back to 2002 when I got to Dinwiddie County, one of the things I was briefed on was just how much of an aged facility Central State Hospital is,” he shared. “And now I look back at my career here and see how many years have passed and while there have been some attempts to improve the facility, I think everyone always cognizant that it was going to take something rather significant.”
Massengill continued, “The facilities there today are outdated and need to be significantly upgraded,” pointing to comments by State Senator Creigh Deeds, chairman of a joint legislative subcommittee on mental health, who has been a champion and advocate for mental health reform in the Commonwealth after his son, Gus Deeds, stabbed the senator over a dozen times before taking his own life in 2013. According to published reports, it was revealed later that officials at a public mental health agency were unable to find Gus a hospital bed a day before the attack.
“Deeds made a comment that this is a place that is forgotten, and it has been forgotten,” Massengill said.
Over the years, the facility has seen a number of buildings close and, as a result, campus security has been significantly scaled back, leading to local law enforcement having to respond to calls at the facility more often. As this plan was unveiled, Massengill said he was encouraged by what he saw, but is looking forward to learning how the Commonwealth plans to address security as part of the project.
“It will be interesting to see, as we start to see this new construction take place, how physical security will be looked at as well as operationally,” Massengill said. “The governor said as we design and build it, we will be continuing to have those conversations, noting some operational things were already in place there.”
The county administrator added, “Sheriff [D.T.] Adams has been vocal and said he will be going [to Central State Hospital] and feels it is the duty of he and his deputies to respond to incidents there, but again, he wants a seat at the table just like the county does as we don’t know a lot of the details coming from the ten-minute press conference.”
Having the county’s voice heard as the project moves forward was an important element Dinwiddie leaders stressed as they digested the governor’s proposals in the hours after his visit to the facility, ranging from security to keeping the Forensics unit at Central State, which, according to the hospital’s website, was added in the 1950s for the evaluation and treatment of patients referred by the courts.
“We just want to be able to work with our legislators so, as those discussions are taking place, we want a seat at the table because there would clearly be some financial or feasibility pieces that would need to be looked at as there are some good paying jobs there and many of those workers live in the region and in Dinwiddie County so, we would want to be part of that conversation so we will be reaching out to [Senator Dance] and [Delegate Aird] to make sure the county at least has a seat at the table when those discussions are being had.”
Speaking to Aird and Dance’s efforts to raise the profile of this important issue, both the county administrator and board chairman had high praise for the county’s legislators and their work to bring this issue to the foreground.
“I think for both state representatives, it is more than just the job and responsibility, it was a personal issue for them that this area could benefit significantly from this type of $320 million investment,” Massengill remarked. “I think they both played an integral role in having the announcement that was made.”
He continued, “Senator Dance’s background of being an employee of the facility and her personal-professional knowledge of how it’s run and even going back to her time as the mayor of Petersburg was important. For Delegate Aird, I have worked with a lot of delegates in a lot of capacities in my life, but she has taken this as a personal mission to get some of these issues in Central State looked at, reviewed and considered to ensure that our fair share is able to be obtained here in Dinwiddie and at this facility.”
At the end of the day, Monday’s announcement was seen as a step in the right direction in an effort to support the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable groups by giving them and the people who care for them a quality environment.
“As state leaders, our duty is to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” Northam said. “That includes Virginians with mental illnesses. I want to thank the members of the SJ47 workgroup, who have been working for several years to improve our mental health system, and members of the General Assembly budget committees, who have been working with my administration to find a path forward on this issue.”
“I am glad they came up with the funds to do it,” Chairman Chavis said, sharing his own story that demonstrates so many people can be affected by mental illness.
“We just had a nephew hang himself because of depression,” he said. “We just went through that a couple of weeks ago so we know what it is like and it affected us as well. I think when our loved ones go into a place like Central State Hospital, we are looking for them to come out a different person.”
This amendment will have to go before the General Assembly for consideration when lawmakers return in April.