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ARPA Funds Not Addressing Recruitment at State Hospital for Children

A photo of the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents in Staunton, VA. A maroon and tan building with a gable roof against a blue sky.
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American Rescue Plan Funding that was supposed to address retention and recruitment at the state hospitals that treat Virginians with mental illnesses has not helped recruit new staff at the hospital serving children and adolescents.

Jamie Bamford, the director of the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents, said in an interview that a retention bonus that came out through ARPA funds in July had a dramatic improvement in retention and reduced unscheduled time off, but had never improved recruitment efforts.

The Commonwealth Center currently only has enough staff to treat 18 people, but could serve 48 children and teens with enough staff

This summer five state hospitals that serve Virginians with mental illness had to pause admissions due to staffing shortages. American Rescue Plan funding was supposed to help address that through retention bonuses.

Hundreds of workers at Virginia’s state hospitals had quit in recent months, and many of the hospitals in the system are essentially at capacity, with empty beds already spoken for by patients who are on their way to hospitals. The data reviewed was for a snapshot on Friday, and a Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services cautioned that the system is very fluid.

“There is a constant churn and the reality is that state hospitals are operating at capacity throughout all of this. Currently, we have 16.9% of beds offline due to staffing, and as a system we are operating at 83% of our total capacity,” said Lauren Cunningham in an email.

Private hospitals have taken in fewer and fewer patients of all ages since Virginia’s “Bed of Last Resort” law went into effect in 2014. In that year, private hospitals took in 91% of patients who were involuntarily admitted under Temporary Detention Orders. That number was 75% in 2020, according to Cunningham.

Staff are quitting due to low wages and long hours in a job that can put their safety at risk.

While the extra funds for retention bonuses allocated as part of American Rescue Plan Funds did not help recruit staff, Bamford said only “one or two” people quit in the first quarter after the funds came through.

The Commonwealth Center only has 38% of direct care staff and the staffing shortage has implications for public health in the future, Bamford said.

“When you talk about that public health aspect, it really starts from early ages in terms of creating and minimizing the systemic traumas that kids face,” she said, adding the Commonwealth Center treats conditions other hospitals don’t. “There are no facilities in the entire state that will serve that very specific population of children with intellectual disabilities and autism.”

Governor Ralph Northam’s office has committed to including $77 million in his proposed budget in December for salary adjustments at the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which runs the 12 state hospital facilities.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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