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South Carolina senators delay mental patient transport bill

February 13, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A bill overhauling how South Carolina transports mental health patients filed after two women drowned in the back of a police van needs some more work, a group of senators agreed Wednesday.

Sen Marlon Kimpson is pushing the proposal, saying the state needs to change the law as quickly as possible or there could be more tragedies like the deaths of 45-year-old Wendy Newton and 43-year-old Nicolette Green. Two police officers drove the van into a washed-out section of a highway covered by floodwaters in September during Hurricane Florence, authorities have said. The officers were able to escape as the van filled with water, but then said they were unable to return to rescue the women.

The bill would allow family members or others to move a patient who has been committed to a mental hospital if the patient isn’t dangerous. Green’s 19-year-old daughter had brought her to a regularly scheduled therapy appointment when she was committed and would have driven her to the hospital herself if allowed, Kimpson said.

The bill also would also require police agencies to create a “therapeutic transport team” of trained officers when law enforcement must move patients.

Both ideas had sticking points that stalled the bill in a subcommittee Wednesday.

Doctors want to make sure they have a say in whether it would be too dangerous to allow a family member to drive a committed patient. Mental health advocates think patients who have the ability should determine who moves them.

Law enforcement agencies worry about the cost — both in money and time — of having to create special units for transporting mental patients.

“Perhaps privatization of transportation is an option. Perhaps insurance can repay the taxpayer,” said York Police Chief Andy Robinson, who was speaking as president of the South Carolina Police Chiefs Association.

Senators suggested maybe they could create regional teams of officers who are trained to move mental health patients.

Kimpson held several hearings late last year in which lawyers for the drowned women testified that the van they were in turned over, blocking the only door the officers could unlock. They didn’t have a key for a second exit door.

The Charleston Democrat reluctantly accepted the decision to work on his bill more, but urged subcommittee members to work fast so the bill wouldn’t get lost.

“Without a wholesale revamp of mental health, we’re going to have a lot more Nicolette Greens and Wendy Newtons,” Kimpson said.

The two Horry County Sheriff’s deputies who were transporting the women were charged last month. The driver, Stephen Flood, was charged with two counts each of reckless homicide and involuntary manslaughter. Joshua Bishop was charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. Both are awaiting trial.

Authorities said the men were given a safe route around the flooding, but ignored it and drove around barricades before the van flipped in the floodwaters on a Marion County highway.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. Read his work at https://apnews.com/search/jeffrey%20collins

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