Virginia Whistleblower Says Her Bosses Refused to Accommodate Her Anxiety Caused By Sexual Assault


(8-10-16) The office of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday cleared state Inspector General June W. Jennings and her top aide of any wrongdoing after a whistleblower complaint alleged that her office failed to thoroughly investigate the death of Jamycheal Mitchell, who died in a Virginia jail waiting for a hospital bed. McAuliffe’s chief of staff, Paul Reagan, dismissed the complaint without contacting or interviewing the three whistleblowers who filed it, including Cathy Hill, an employee in Jennings’ office. I thought it only fair to give Ms. Hill a forum to voice her concerns, especially after she recounted her personal struggle with Post Traumatic Stress to me caused by a sexual assault.)

My Story

By Cathy Hill

After approximately a 28 year-career in state service to persons with behavioral health and developmental disabilities, it saddens me to think I may not be able to complete my last few years with the Commonwealth of Virginia because the current leadership of the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) has actively undermined my ability to serve in good conscience.

The inadequate investigation into the death of Jamycheal Mitchell conducted by the OSIG Director of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, Priscilla Smith, and publicly supported by the State Inspector General, June Jennings, became the “last straw” for me and my colleagues, Ann White and William Thomas. The proclamation that the investigation was thorough and complete, coupled with other questionable practices, led the three of us to file a whistleblower complaint in July. After considerable discussion, we decided to share our thoughts and trust that our experiences and concerns provided in good faith, as established by law, would be investigated and a suitable judgment rendered so that the remedies necessary to correct the cited practices can occur.

“Anything less than full accountability in state government

is unacceptable.”

It was troubling that the official review of our concerns failed to include us. The reason we took the risk to openly file the complaint was to highlight that anything less than full accountability in state government is unacceptable. It is now up to the citizens of Virginia to voice whether the accountability and transparency we expect as citizens occurred. The bottom line for us remains that persons with behavioral health and developmental disabilities deserve nothing less. 

Our complaint addresses many issues, but the most significant for us involves the OSIG investigation into Jamycheal’s death at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Eighty percent of the OSIG investigation regarding his death was completed from behind a desk rather than from site visits and one-on-one interviews with employees of the agencies responsible for Mitchell’s case. We found the issued report the key indicator that an actual investigation did not occur. Not only did the OSIG report not identify the method(s) of investigation, discuss the presumed lack of jurisdiction or lack of medical expertise, it did not provide any significant insights into Jamycheal’s care and treatment while incarcerated. We believe that the report’s overall lack of detail resulted in the leadership having no other option but to provide misleading statements to members of the General Assembly when questioned about the absence of investigative findings.

Ms. White, Mr. Thomas, and I are individuals with extensive familiarity in working in the public sector who have experienced first-hand the effectiveness of an inspectors general office when the appointed IG is courageous enough to fulfill the position for which he or she was appointed. I have worked with three such individuals-Inspectors General Dr. Anita Everett, James W. Stewart, III, and G. Douglas Bevelacqua. We believe that since the independent Office of the Inspector General for BHDS merged with the State Inspector General Office in 2012, there has been a significant decline in commitment to address the critical needs of individuals with behavioral health and developmental disabilities by the OSIG leadership. We believe the risk-adverse approach currently endorsed by the division’s leadership does a grave disservice to the citizens of Virginia and its elected officials because adequate reforms cannot take place if the OSIG leadership continues to neutralize deficiencies and discourse about risk management without making the tough recommendations necessary to effect change in an environment that fosters transparency and accountability in state government.

As a person with a documented history of recurrent severe depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I understand first-hand some of the challenges individuals with behavioral health issues face in trying to be heard, but I never imagined that my past history of trauma would become the issue it did in my professional life as it did this year. As a sexual assault survivor, I shared my story with every inspector general I have served with, including Ms. Jennings, in hopes that I would be allowed to not go into the residential areas of the sex offender facility or in the state prisons, when reviews occur in those settings. I have actively participated in reviews in those settings, just not in the residential areas. Previous inspector generals have honored my request to not enter those settings because as a person with a history of sexual assault trauma the residential areas are just too stressful for me. Even Ms. Jennings, prior to the hiring of Ms. Smith, allowed this accommodation to occur for which I was extremely grateful. This consideration ended this year under Ms. Smith.

“I re-experienced the depression, anxiety, and flashbacks associated with my history of trauma”

Early in 2016, I was assigned to lead the inspections of the behavioral health units in correctional facilities. When I spoke of my history and previous arrangement, Ms. Smith immediately stated, “So you are telling me you cannot do your job.” Even though she was aware of my history, she showed no interest in further discussion on how we could make the situation work for both me and the office. Ms. Smith required me to request a formal accommodation. I did, but my request was ultimately denied based on the fact that Ms. Jennings and Ms. Smith determined that to allow me to not enter the residential areas or interview offenders would be a hardship for the office, even though this was never viewed as such during the previous 16 years. It was and remains very confusing to me that the same leadership that sanctions desk reviews of critical events, such as an unexplained death, found it a hardship to accommodate my mental health issue by having skilled and experienced consultant(s) or other OSIG staff members conduct phases of the correctional reviews as the reviews were handled in the past.

Following Ms. Smith’s demand that a formal accommodation be requested, I re-experienced the depression, anxiety, and flashbacks associated with my history of trauma, resulting in the need for increased psychiatric and counseling interventions. Physician explanations about PTSD and a request for a delay in the inspections to allow me to engage in treatment designed to support me to be able to fulfill Ms. Smith’s demand were eventually unheeded. I even wrote to Ms. Jennings requesting the opportunity to meet with her to discuss the issue with the goal of resolving it to the mutual benefit of both the office and myself. My request was denied. I never said I was not willing to go into the prisons – all I asked for was a period of treatment to support me in preparing to fulfill the obligations of my position as defined.

On Monday, June 27, 2016, despite my hesitancy and the statements of my physician and therapist that I was not ready to go into the prison, I was required to do so. I did go to the facility because I believed I had no option but to choose between my mental health and my job. My experience that day was horrendous. I do not know what effect the sharing of my personal experience will have, but I am willing to broadly expose my history because the actions of Ms. Smith and Ms. Jennings were and continue to be unacceptable to me as a professional and person. I can understand at some level the response of Ms. Jennings because she does not have a background in mental health, but in her position as State Inspector General I hoped for continued understanding. However, the response of my supervisor Ms. Smith, as a registered nurse and behavioral health professional, is inexplicable.

Every day persons with behavioral health and developmental disabilities seek assistance to lead their best and most productive lives, but they are not always heard. Senator Deeds was not heard on the evening he sought help for his son. Persons with mental illness in jails, like Jamycheal Mitchell, may not even be provided with the opportunity to be heard. I have a voice and I will use it for the higher good of any person with a mental illness who has felt shame, been belittled, harassed, or treated less than human, as well as the people in their lives that often struggle along with them.

I am not comparing my situation to that of Jamycheal Mitchell. I realize that there are degrees of severity to mental illness and developmental disabilities and each person’s experience is unique. I am very fortunate to have access to the care I need and a solid system of support. Yet the reemergence of my symptoms were very real for me and temporarily debilitating, resulting in me being unable to leave my home unless I was accompanied by family because I did not feel safe in “the world” without them.

Not all individuals are as fortunate as I am which is why I choose to speak out on their behalf. Stigma is real and harmful. When harm results from the actions of those who are charged with ensuring that incidents of abuse, neglect, and inadequate care are addressed, then neither I nor my colleagues can be passive observers to this injustice. I believe that all persons with behavioral health and developmental disabilities have the right to adequate, timely treatment and support no matter the setting.

“Creating an environment that applies dignity and respect”

Even though there are degrees of severity to mental illness and developmental disabilities, there should never be degrees to the dignity and respect shown persons dealing with the challenges they face as a result of their illness or condition. Creating an environment that applies dignity and respect, when addressing the systemic barriers to persons with behavioral health and developmental disabilities from realizing their highest self, does not need government funding to occur. A quality system of care begins with the people seeking assistance. This means accepting that persons with behavioral health and developmental disabilities are first and foremost –   people and not cases. They are our neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers. We found no dignity and respect afforded Jamycheal Mitchell whose death deserved a truly comprehensive investigation. Now nearly a year later, questions remain. An office, such as the OSIG, must extend dignity and respect to the very people the office is charged with overseeing the quality of care provided. For OSIG it means having the type of leaders who will be courageous enough to conduct thorough investigations, inspections, and/or reviews and challenge the system, as mandated, to influence needed changes.

Anything less is insupportable and should be intolerable to the citizens of Virginia.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.