Top Peer Hired In Fairfax County: Police Panel Also Gets Members With Mental Health Experience


(3-1-17)  There’s promising news to report in Fairfax County, Va., where I live. Two peers have been appointed to important jobs and individuals familiar with mental illnesses have been named to serve on a panel that will review complaints about police actions.

Peer Jobs Filled

The Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, which oversees mental health care, announced it has hired a Director of Consumer and Family Affairs, a management job specifically created to be held by a peer. That position has gone unfilled since the end of 2015 when David Mangano retired.

Facing budget cuts, Tisha Deeghan, the CSB executive director, initially had hoped to save money by dividing Mangano’s responsibilities among her top staff. But that move upset peers because none of those managers had lived experiences with mental illnesses. Peers argued that they needed one of their own in management, in part, because of the unusual nature of their jobs. Peer specialists often receive services from the CSB while working for it. That can put them in an uncomfortable position when they feel obligated to advocate for their clients against CSB decisions.  (The controversy about filling Mangano’s position ruptured feelings in the peer community, as evidenced by a still ongoing personnel dispute between CSB management and long-time peer advocate Gina Hayes.)

Director Deeghan said the CSB had hired Mark Blackwell to fill the county’s top peer job.

 Mark is a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist, a certified trainer of Peer Recovery Specialists in the state of Virginia and was highly recommended from multiple peer organizations from across the Commonwealth.  Mark holds a Master’s degree of Administration and an Undergraduate degree in Public Administration.   In addition, Mark has a graduate certificate in health services administration.

He most recently worked as a program specialist in the Office of Consumer and Family Affairs in the Dept. of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDS), in Richmond.   Prior to that, he held executive leadership level positions at Richmond Recovery Resources, SAARA of Va., and the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault.  

The Community Services Board also has a new peer member after letting that position go unfilled for several months. I first worked with Daria Akers while serving on a county advisory panel and I was immediately impressed with her knowledge of our local mental health system and her skill at making recommendations based on her own experiences. In a press release posted at the time, she was described as:

A mother of two who is successfully living with Bipolar disorder. In 2010, during a manic event, she was arrested and sent to Fairfax ADC.

According to Virginia law:

One-third of the appointments to the CSB board shall be individuals who are receiving or who have received services or family members of individuals who are receiving or who have received services, at least one of whom shall be an individual receiving services.

I’m thrilled that the board now has a peer serving on it, as well as, retired Gen. Gary Ambrose, who is a family member, as its chair. There is still one vacancy on the 16 member panel.

Police Review Panel

Sharon Bulova, the chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, also announced yesterday the names of nine citizens appointed to a newly created  Police Civilian Review Panel.

The creation of a Civilian Review Panel was recommended by the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission that I served on. Chairman Bulova appointed that commission after two fatal law enforcement encounters that sparked angry protests, including the death of Natasha McKenna, a 37 year-old African American with mental illness who died after being repeatedly stunned with a taser while being removed from a jail cell. 

“The Police Civilian Review Panel will promote further transparency and openness in community policing,” Chairman Sharon Bulova said.

The Civilian Review Panel will review complaints about: the use of abusive, racial, ethnic or sexual language; harassment or discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, age, familial status, or disability;  reckless endangerment of a detainee or person in custody; and serious violations of Fairfax County or FCPD procedures.

 The Civilian Review Panel will not address potentially criminal use of force or police-involved shootings. Cases of that magnitude would likely involve an investigation by the Commonwealth’s Attorney and would be monitored by the newly hired Police Auditor, Richard G. Schott.

I am grateful that Chairman Bulova kept a promise that she made to me about appointing members to the panel who had a background or experience dealing with mental illnesses. Reports show that individuals with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be shot by the police and at least one fourth of all fatal police shootings involve someone with a mental disorder.

Two of the nine members have direct mental health ties:

 Jean Senseman, Lorton

Ms. Senseman is a licensed clinical social worker who has spent many years working with clients who experience mental illness, PTSD and substance use disorders. Ms. Senseman has worked in private practice providing treatment and therapy for individuals young and old who experience a wide variety of mental health disorders. Ms. Senseman taught at George Washington University Medical School and volunteers for her Condo Association Finance Committee. Previously, Ms. Senseman worked at the Woodburn Community Mental Health Center and at the Bailey’s Crossroads Community Shelter helping residents of all socio-economic backgrounds receive mental health treatment.

Rhonda VanLowe, Reston

Ms. VanLowe was appointed to the Governor’s Taskforce for Improving Mental Health Services and Crisis Response and served on the Public Safety workgroup. She has devoted much of her community service work to serving those with unique physical, mental, emotional, intellectual or cognitive backgrounds. Ms. VanLowe practiced law in law firm and corporate settings, served as Board Chair of The Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program, Inc., and received the National Women of Color Special Recognition Award at the 2008 STEM Conference. Ms. VanLowe is a 36-year resident of Fairfax County and looks forward to working together with members of the Panel to develop procedures that will set the foundational tone and tenor for the work of the Panel.

 Others on the panel include:

Hansel Aguilar, Fairfax

Mr. Aguilar, originally from Honduras, investigates allegations of police misconduct at the D.C. Office of Police Complaints. Mr. Aguilar is a former police officer for the George Mason University Police Department and previously worked as a case manager and internal investigator for Youth for Tomorrow. He has served with the Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean and with the Fairfax County Office for Women & Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. Mr. Aguilar is bilingual in Spanish and English and believes that oversight is an important tenet of maintaining justice and equality in a democratic society.

 Kathleen Davis-Siudut, Springfield

Ms. Davis-Siudut has spent the past 15 years providing training as well policy development and implementation in the areas of sexual violence, human trafficking, and cultural diversity. Ms. Davis-Siudut is of Korean descent and has previously worked for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Polaris Project, and the US Marine Corps. She currently works with the Air Force as a sexual assault prevention and response subject matter expert.

 Steve Descano, Springfield

During his six years as a federal prosecutor, Mr. Descano led numerous investigations conducted by FBI, IRS and USPIS agents. While at the Department of Justice, he analyzed documentary evidence, interviewed witnesses, and reviewed the investigatory work of agents and other prosecutors. Mr. Descano currently works as Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel for Paragon Autism Services and serves on the Criminal Justice Committee of the Fairfax County NAACP. Mr. Descano also serves on the Fairfax County Trails and Sidewalks Committee, is a graduate of West Point, and was nominated by the Fairfax County NAACP to serve on the Civilian Review Panel.

 Hollye Doane, Oakton

A Fairfax County resident for more than 30 years, Ms. Doane spent most of her career as an attorney in Washington D.C. representing an array of clients, including the National Down Syndrome Society and Down Syndrome Research and Treatment Foundation. Ms. Doane has been an advocate for the disability community for more than 20 years and understands the importance of building positive relationships between law enforcement officers and people with disabilities. Her experience as a journalist prior to attending law school gave her an appreciation for clear, timely and transparent communication between government officials and the community. After her retirement, Ms. Doane trained as a mediator and facilitator and currently serves as a lay pastoral minister in her church.

 Douglas Kay, Fairfax

Mr. Kay is a trial lawyer who has handled civil litigation, criminal defense and personal injury cases for over 20 years.  He currently focuses his practice on commercial litigation matters. As a criminal defense attorney, he has represented individuals charged with everything from simple traffic matters to the most serious felony offenses in state and federal courts. Mr. Kay previously served as a judge advocate in the U.S. Navy and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Fairfax County. A lifelong Fairfax County resident, Mr. Kay attended Fairfax County Public Schools, coaches his son’s youth basketball team, and served on Fairfax County’s Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission. Mr. Kay was nominated to serve on the Civilian Review Panel by the South Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and the Fairfax Bar Association.

 Randy Sayles, Oak Hill

Mr. Sayles has over 35 years of law enforcement and criminal investigations experience. He worked as a Federal Agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and served as a police officer for the Denver, Colorado Police Department. Mr. Sayles enjoys giving back to the community by volunteering for the Clean Fairfax Council and Creekside Homeowners Association, and was the recipient of a Fairfax County 2016 Environmental Excellence Award for removing 800 bags of trash and over 1200 illegal signs along nine miles of Centreville Road. Mr. Sayles served as a member of Fairfax County’s Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission and has continued to work with the Board of Supervisors and Fairfax County Police to implement the Commission’s recommendations.

 Adrian L. Steel, Jr., McLean (Chairman)

Mr. Steel served on Fairfax County’s Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission and has continued to work with the Board of Supervisors to implement the Commission’s recommendations. Mr. Steel has been appointed by the Board of Supervisors to serve as the first chairman of the Police Civilian Review Panel. Mr. Steel has demonstrated extensive knowledge and a strong commitment regarding 21st Century police policies and best practices, including civilian oversight. Mr. Steel currently works as a senior counsel at Mayer Brown LLP where he has practiced law for over 35 years, and previously served as Special Assistant to FBI Director, William H. Webster.



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.