Advocates cry for change in how South Carolina transports mental health patients

The drowning deaths of two mental health patients in an Horry County Sheriff’s Office jail van during Hurricane Florence has sparked discussion of how mentally ill people should be handled and transported. 

The two deputies drove around a flood barricade after they were waved by a national guardsman. 

The September incident has shaken mental health advocates across the state who are crying for changes to South Carolina law. 

In a majority of cases law enforcement officers are usually tasked with transporting involuntarily committed patients. This is for safety reasons; the state Department of Mental Health says patient behavior can be volatile. 

But some advocates say the current system treats patients like criminals. 

Nicolette Green and Wendy Newton, who drowned in a jail van headed to McLeod Behavioral Health Center in Darlington, were not criminals. They were seeking help for their mental illnesses, and on their way to get that help they died under the watch of two Horry County deputies.

On September 18, the van carrying Green and Newton got stuck as floodwaters poured in. The two deputies tried to get the door open and called for help. By the time rescue boats got there, the van was mostly submerged. 

“We have the two deputies that are out of the van and are secure on the boat,” dispatch radio can be heard saying that night. “The two inmates that are in the back of the van are still in the van and are talking and are working on getting them out now.”

But no one got them out in time.

“I have this mental image of her, and her eyes getting wider as it’s coming up,” said Donnela Green-Johnson, Nicolette Green’s sister. “Trying to think of what her last thoughts would have been, had to have been of her children. I’m sure most.”

Johnson said she often pictures her sister’s final moments shut inside a metal enclosure often used to transport inmates. 

“Why two women with no past history of violence, why were they put in a cage? That just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Johnson said.

It doesn’t make any sense to Anna Maria Darwin either. “It was, it was horrifying,” Darwin said in a phone interview with News13. She is an attorney and team leader at Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities. 

Under a 2016 change to state law, loved ones have the option of finding an emergency medical technician to transport mental health patients. Darwin said that option can be expensive and places a burden on families. But leaving transport up to law enforcement agencies places a burden on them too. 

“It’s not a good system whichever way you look at it in my opinion,” Darwin said. “Because you’ve got law enforcement doing a job that they’re not really trained to do, and you’re also pulling them off a job that they are trained to do.”

“I don’t think law enforcement should be involved unless they’re violent, really violent, or documented violence,” Linda Green, Nicolette’s mother, said. “And then I still think medical professionals should be along.”

We asked the deputy director of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health why they aren’t along. “It would be very difficult for us to gear up for that even if the general assembly, you know, were to appropriate a lot of extra money to start that process,” Mark Binkley said. “That’s not an area that the agency has much experience with.”

Binkley said their medical professionals are trained to provide treatment not transports. He thinks it would be worthwhile to look at alternatives to the transport system, even though he thinks the current one works. 

“Law enforcement is reliable, they come when they’re called, and they do a good job of safely transporting people to the hospital,” Binkley said. In his 30 plus years with the department, he said he’s seen very few problems with law enforcement transports. 

But the Green family says one tragic accident is one too many. “She’s gone,” Donnela said with tears in her eyes. “Six year old will never have her back. Six year old will only know of Nikki the stories we tell him. That’s it, that’s all he’ll have. “

She clasps her mother’s hand has they sit next to each other. “And he always says, you know, that he probably could have saved her,” Linda Green said. 

When asked what mental health training since-fired deputies Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop received, a spokesperson for HCSO responded that the department takes part in an annual 40-hour training program on how to respond to people in crises. 

A small group of state lawmakers formed a special subcommittee to launch an investigation of their own. Senator Marlon Kimpson in a Facebook post references the HCSO incident and the subcommittee saying, “I look forward to receiving my official appointment papers so we can begin the work of improving the way in which we treat those suffering from mental illness in our state.”

Kimpson hopes the committee has some proposals by the start of the 2019 legislative session.

There are still many questions that the Green family and people at home have regarding this case, and News13 has tried to get more answers. Count on us to continue to follow this story and bring you any updates.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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