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Youngkin pledges to seek mental health legislation in honor of Irvo Otieno

Virginia families would have the right to be near a relative who is having a medical, mental health or substance-use emergency, and that person could be given previously prescribed medications, under legislation Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Thursday he'll pursue in the coming year.

Youngkin said the proposed reforms would honor Irvo Otieno, a 28-year-old Black man whose death in March while in custody at a state mental hospital sparked outrage and led to both legal charges and a wrongful death settlement.

Otieno was initially taken to a hospital for treatment in March amid a mental health episode. But he was later taken to jail after police said he “became physically assaultive toward officers," and from there was transported to a state mental hospital south of Richmond.

Otieno's family and their attorneys have said that while Otieno was in the first hospital, his mother was prevented from seeing him. And they have said that while Otieno was in jail — where they argue he never should have been taken — he was for days denied access to needed medications.

“The system failed you," Youngkin told Otieno's mother and brother, who attended the event. “The system failed Irvo. And we’re going to work together to fix it.”

Youngkin outlined that legislation — which he said he thought would pass unanimously — and other mental health-related priorities for next year's legislative session in a speech in Richmond. A year ago, the governor rolled out a plan he calls “Right Help, Right Now” intended to overhaul the state's mental health care system, in part by expanding crisis services and tackling substance abuse challenges.

Otieno's mother, Caroline Ouko, and his brother, Leon Ochieng, said in an interview Thursday that they welcomed the governor's push for the legislation, as well as his focus on improving mental health care services.

“If Irvo's mental crisis was taken seriously, you know, treated as such, I would not be having an empty chair at the Christmas table,” his mother said.

Ochieng said the family plans to celebrate what would have been Otieno's 29th birthday on Sunday.

Youngkin also pledged in his speech to push for legislation that would ban TikTok for users under 18. Dozens of other states have taken steps to ban or otherwise limit TikTok, including Montana, where a first-in-the-nation law banning the video-sharing app has met a legal challenge.

The governor also said he would push for legislation intended to otherwise protect children and their data privacy online, by banning targeted advertising to minors and requiring verifiable parental consent for children to establish a social media profile.

Youngkin will need to build support for his priorities among Democrats, who will have narrow majorities in both General Assembly chambers come January.