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Jayla Marie McNeill

State Health Officials Take Steps to Ban Conversion Therapy

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia Board of Psychology has issued a letter of guidance stating that conversion therapy should be considered a violation of standard practices -- which LGBTQ advocates hope is a major step toward halting the practice.  

Conversion therapy, which aims to change the sexual orientation, gender expression or identity of LGBTQ individuals, has been banned in several states across the U.S. but is still legal in Virginia.

The current debate to outlaw conversion therapy goes back to the state Capitol. In recent years, Democratic lawmakers have proposed bills to outlaw the practice, but the legislation repeatedly died in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. As a result, state agencies are taking the matter into their own hands.

Several of the Virginia licensing and regulatory boards that form the Department of Health Professions are working to end conversion therapy on minors by licensed professionals.

The Virginia Board of Psychology released a guidance document in January that states practicing conversion therapy could result in “a finding of misconduct and disciplinary action against the licensee or registrant.” The board also opened an online forum in February for public comments. That forum, which closed on March 20, received over 500 responses, with a vast majority in favor of the ban.

The Board of Counseling is still currently accepting public comments on a similar document in an online forum open until April 17.

“Conversion therapy is a disgusting practice which seeks to invalidate the LGBTQ community,” stated Zachary Whitten, a proponent of the ban, in the online forum. “I see no way Virginia can proclaim itself an inclusive commonwealth . . . if it allows such a horrifying and undignified practice.”

LGBTQ advocates also support the ban and claim that such therapy inflicts psychological

harm on minors -- even leading to depression and suicide.

“Virginia law already prohibits discredited and unsafe practices by licensed therapists,” stated Equality Virginia, an advocacy group working on behalf of the LGBTQ community in Virginia. “The guidance will curb harmful practices known to produce lifelong damage to those who are subjected to them and help ensure the health and safety of LGBTQ youth.”

Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. have implemented regulations and licensing restriction against conversion therapy.

The Virginia Catholic Conference does not support the proposed ban, claiming it exceeds governmental authority by giving the board “sweeping authority to sanction counselors’ speech and engage in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

The VCC also argues that the ban violates First Amendment rights and undermines traditional family roles.

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, contends that “parents are closest to their children’s challenges.”

“They know their unique needs and are in best position to identify solutions. ... Just as parents must give consent for over-the-counter medications, field trips, and extracurricular activities, they have the constitutional right to guide mental health care for their children,” Caruso stated.

Many national health and medical associations have dismissed the practice as ineffective and damaging to the health of LGBTQ youth. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from a list of mental illnesses.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, conversion therapies “lack scientific credibility and clinical utility” and could “increase [the] risk of causing or exacerbating mental health condition in the very youth they purport to treat.”

Almost a year ago, the Virginia Academy of Clinical Psychologists submitted a statement to the Virginia Board of Psychology, which stated that “conversion therapy should be considered as a violation of standards of practice in that rendering such services is considered to have real potential of jeopardizing the health and well-being of patients.”

Law Would Protect Elderly Against Financial Crimes

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — With bipartisan support, legislation headed toward approval in the General Assembly may help protect elderly residents and other vulnerable adults against financial exploitation by giving financial institutions more tools to help prevent this crime.

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of SB 1490, but the two chambers must resolve their differences over the measure. “This bill addresses the issue of financial exploitation of older Virginians, which has been on the rise in recent years,” said the sponsor, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham.

Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, is sponsoring HB 1987, the companion bill in the House. That measure was unanimously approved by the House last month and, in a slightly different version, by the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee on Friday.

“I think it’s important for people to pay close attention to elderly folks and how they may be financially exploited. We’re all getting older, there are more of us and we’ve got to watch out for each other,” said Toscano, the House minority leader.

“This bill helps encourage banking institutions to do that.”

Toscano’s and Obenshain’s proposals would give financial institutions the ability to “refuse to execute a transaction, delay a transaction, or refuse to disburse funds” if the institutions believe in “good faith” that the “transaction or disbursement may involve, facilitate, result in, or contribute to the financial exploitation of an adult.”

“What we’ve been finding is that sometimes, elderly people are exploited by their caregivers or some relative by taking them to the bank and removing cash from their accounts. Once the cash is removed, it’s hard to get it back,” Toscano said.

“So this gives lending institution some more teeth to make sure that they’re not giving away the money of folks who are being exploited and can essentially stop it before it happens.”

The legislation also would grant the financial institution’s staff immunity from civil or criminal liability for refusing to process transactions or for reporting suspicious financial activity as long as these actions are taken with due cause.

“Often the tellers at bank branches are in the last position to identify and stop these crimes, but too often they feel helpless because they cannot stop or delay suspicious transactions,” Obenshain said. “This bill will empower these bank employees to help protect vulnerable older Virginians.”

The financial exploitation of vulnerable adults is a widespread yet hidden problem.

The National Adult Protective Services Association identifies vulnerable adults as anyone who is “targeted due to age or disability, isolation, reliance on caregivers, or decreased physical or mental capacity.”

According to the association, 1 in 9 seniors has been “abused, neglected or exploited,” and 1 in 20 cases involves financial exploitation. About 90 percent of abusers are family members, caregivers or other individuals in a position of trust.

The Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitation Services reported 1,016 substantiated cases of financial exploitation in fiscal year 2015. But because most cases go unreported, the agency estimated there were more than 44,000 incidents of exploitation that year, costing elderly or incapacitated victims potentially more than $1.2 billion.

The average financial loss per victim was about $28,000, state officials found.

State lawmakers have been trying to address the problem since 2013, but legislation has failed in previous years. In 2016, for example, Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, introduced a bill nearly identical to HB 1987; it died in a House subcommittee.

Toscano is confident that the legislation will pass this year after House and Senate members iron out their relatively minor differences.

“I think that we will resolve the technical differences, and it will pass,” he said.

How to report elder abuse

To report suspected adult abuse, neglect or exploitation, call your local Department of Social Services or the 24-hour, toll-free Adult Protective Services hotline at 888-832-3858.

Senate Panel Kills Bill To Update Law For Same-Sex Parents

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A Senate committee has killed a bill to remove gender-specific pronouns from parentage laws. The legislation would have made state laws more inclusive of same-sex couples, while also reflecting federal law.

“Our code is out of compliance,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who introduced the bill. “The commonwealth, I think, is subject to due process challenge because we haven’t changed things.”

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

The court ruled that the 14th Amendment “guarantees the right to marry as one of the fundamental liberties it protects, and that analysis applies to same-sex couples in the same manner as it does to opposite-sex couples.” Federal laws were then updated to reflect the court’s decision.

The gender-neutral language of SB 1544 was taken from the most recent version of the Uniform Parentage Act, a set of rules for determining a child’s legal parentage without discriminating against same-sex couples.

The bill also sought to ensure that same-sex couples would no longer have to go through the adoption process when using assisted conception. Currently, the non-biological parent must go through an adoption process to be considered a legal parent of the child.

For example, if a lesbian woman uses assisted conception to conceive a child, that woman’s wife would have to go through an adoption process to be considered a legal parent of the child under current Virginia law. Under this bill, adoption would not be required.

“I’ve had people contact me in Northern Virginia that actually make arrangements to have their child born in D.C., so they don’t have to go through legal adoption in Virginia,” Surovell said. “This [bill] is needed to bring our law up to speed.”

Joseph D. Wilson, from the law firm of Kelley Drye & Warren, voiced his support of the bill during the floor debate.

“We need to do this to comply with what the Constitution is now,” Wilson said. “I represent a same-sex lesbian couple, and I’m here to speak principally to you. I support the provisions in SB 1544.”

On a 7-8 vote, Surovell’s bill was defeated Monday in the Senate Committee of Courts and Justice. An identical bill also failed to advance out of committee in 2018.

Some legislators who opposed the bill raised concerns about the legal parental and financial ambiguities that could result from a scenario in which someone decides to conceive a child without consent from that person’s spouse.

Wilson said this concern already exists with current Virginia law. He said the bill would not resolve this issue but would only update the language to include non-gender-specific terms.

How they voted

Here is how the Senate Committee of Courts and Justice voted Monday on SB 1544 (Assisted conception; parentage presumption).

01/21/19 Senate: Failed to report (defeated) in Courts of Justice (7-Y 8-N)

YEAS — Saslaw, Howell, Lucas, Edwards, Deeds, Sturtevant, Petersen — 7.

NAYS — Obenshain, Norment, McDougle, Stuart, Stanley, Reeves, Chafin, Peake — 8.

Virginia Senate committee votes to legalize guns in churches

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Republicans voted Monday to advance a bill that would legalize concealed weapons in places of worship in Virginia.

The Senate Courts of Justice committee voted 7-6 along party lines to advance SB 1024. The bill would repeal a Virginia law that makes it a Class 4 misdemeanor to carry or conceal “any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon without sufficient reason, to a place of worship.”

Introduced by Sen. Robert Black, R-Loudoun, the bill is designed to address the “ambiguous” Virginia laws on the use of guns in places of worship, Black previously told the Loudoun-Times Mirror.

“I believe Virginians have the right to protect themselves,” Black stated on his website. “I support the right of competent, law abiding citizens to own arms to defend themselves and their families.”

The bill recalls President Donald Trump’s assertion in October that armed guards would have prevented the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him,” Trump said to reporters.

Eleven were killed during the attack, which was called the “most deadly anti-Semitic hate crime in American history” by the Anti-Defamation League.

Last year, an identical bill was endorsed by Sen. A Benton Chafin Jr., R-Russell. Chafin’s bill successfully passed the Senate, but died in the House.

Some congregations nationally already allow concealed weapons, including The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida. The church’s decision came in response to the 2017 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which left 26 dead.

As a means of “warning” individuals, the congregation put up a sign stating that the property is “heavily armed.”

“Yes we are a church,” the sign reads, “and we will protect our people.”

Supporters argue that allowing concealed weapons in places of religious worship is a necessary form of preparation against potential threats. Critics maintain that stricter gun laws would better prevent attacks.

SB 1024 awaits a vote from the full Senate before moving to the House.

Immigrant Advocates Bash Bill Blocking ‘Sanctuary Cities’


Two years ago, immigrant rights activists held a rally to urge Richmond to designate itself as a "sanctuary city." (File photo by Jessica Nolte of Capital News Service)

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Immigrant rights groups were outraged after a Senate committee advanced a bill to prohibit localities from restricting federal enforcement of immigration laws.

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 8-6 Monday for SB 1156, which states, “No locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.” Opponents say the measure would require local police officers to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities.

“We feel this bill would create havoc for families and first responders by giving ICE agents free rein to continue inflicting psychological and other cruelties against immigrant communities throughout the commonwealth without accountability,” said Vilma Seymour, the president of the Richmond chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

SB 1156, introduced by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, is awaiting a vote this week by the full Senate. To become law, the bill must also pass the House and secure the governor’s signature. Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed a similar bill last year.

According to Black, the bill would not require localities to assist federal immigration law enforcement. However, it would preclude localities from enacting laws that restrict the “traditional” cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

“Throughout law enforcement, there is a sort of customary interaction on all levels,” Black said at Monday’s committee meeting. “Most of these cooperative agreements arise, not out of statute … but local comity between organizations that are concerned about similar things.”

Also present was the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, representing 12 organizations that oppose the bill, including the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.

Leonina Arismendi Žarković from the Latino coalition offered a prayer before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

“Dear Lord ... I thank you for every single person in this room speaking power to people that most need it right now,” Žarković began. “I ask you, Lord, to please touch Sen. Black’s heart … Ask him to drop this right now. We know that you have brought every single person to these shores, and we know that you have a plan for each and every one of them.”

“This bill, if it goes forward,” she added, “is going to be a complete stumbling block onto your people. And that is not what I want.”

Black’s bill is viewed as an attempt to prevent “sanctuary cities” in Virginia — localities that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement activities. Some jurisdictions in California, for example, have refused federal requests to detain people for deportation from the U.S.

Proponents of sanctuary cities say they foster good relations between local police and immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Such immigrants often are afraid to report crimes, for instance, if they know local police cooperate with ICE, immigrant rights advocates say.

Bill Would Exempt Mentally Ill from Death Penalty

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Senate committee has agreed to advance a bill that would protect individuals with a severe mental illness from the receiving the death penalty.

On a 8-6 vote Monday, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee approved SB 1137, which states that “a defendant in a capital case who had a severe mental illness as defined in the bill, at the time of the offense is not eligible for the death penalty.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Favola, D-Arlington, is being considered by the full Senate this week.

The bill would establish procedures for determining mental illness (such as expert evaluators), would require judges and juries to take illness into account in sentencing procedures and would mandate that it is the responsibility of the defendant to prove his severe mental illness by a “preponderance of evidence.”

Under current Virginia law, the jury can take mental illness into consideration when deciding to apply the death penalty.  This bill aims to remove the option of the death penalty for those with a proven severe mental illness.

“This is really a sentencing bill,” Favola. “It doesn’t say that the person would have to be ruled not guilty.”

Thirty states have the death penalty. According the  Death Penalty information Center, Virginia carried out the second highest number of executions, 113, since 1976, coming in second to Texas, which carried out 558 executions.

In 2017, Virginia executed two inmates and has three prisoners on death row.

“The U.S Supreme Court over time has issued decisions that really talk about culpability and the fact that the death penalty should only be applied when an individual has full understanding of his actions and consequences,” Favola said.

In the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the court maintained that the legal execution of defendants with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that applying the death penalty to defendants 18 years of age or younger was “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited by the U.S Constitution.

However, there is no federal law or ruling that extends that protection to individuals who have been deemed to have a severe mental illness, despite pressure from medical associations and human rights groups.

Mental illness “is a whole category that has never really been dealt with by the courts and needs to be dealt with by this legislation,” Sen. John Edwards, D–Roanoke, told the Courts of Justice Committee. “I think this is an important bill.”

Organizations supporting the legislation included the Virginia Catholic Conference, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, Mental Health America of Virginia and the Disability Law Center of Virginia.  

Speaking in opposition to the bill was John Mahoney of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth Attorneys. Mahoney said the measure is equivalent to “attacking the death penalty from the sides” and would “take things out of the hands of the jury.”

“We see this as making cases unendable,” Mahoney said. “The whole focus, then, is going to be mental health and what is a mental illness.”

Herring Chastises Panel for Rejecting Hate Crime Bill

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring expressed disappointment Monday after a legislative committee rejected a bill to expand Virginia’s definition of hate crime to include gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity.

“The General Assembly has sent a clear message to those who feel vulnerable to hate and mistreatment that they will not take the measures needed to protect them,” Herring stated after the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated the bill with a vote 8-6 along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans opposing it.

“The update to Virginia’s hate crimes definition is long overdue and would have offered needed protections for women, the LGBT community and Virginians with disabilities. I am disappointed to see this commonsense bill die in a party line vote. At a time when communities in Virginia and around the country are confronting a rise in hate crimes and hateful rhetoric, the General Assembly has sent a clear message to those who feel vulnerable to hate and mistreatment that they will not take the measures needed to protect them" - Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, Commonwealth of Virginia

Currently, the Code of Virginia refers only to individuals or groups targeted on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background or national origin as being victims of hate crime.

SB 1375, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, sought to expand that definition to include other marginalized groups. Herring called it a “common sense” bill and said he was disheartened that it was defeated on a party-line vote.

The bill would have brought Virginia closer to the federal definition of a hate crime, which includes “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

Virginia State Police said bias-motivated crimes in the commonwealth rose from 137 in 2016 to 202 the following year.

The statistics for 2017, the most recent year available, include 89 incidents related to race, 44 to religion, 20 to ethnicity, 38 to sexual orientation and 11 to disability.

Virginia’s statistics reflect a larger national trend that shows a rise of hate crimes in the U.S. According to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, 7,175 hate crimes were reported nationwide in 2017. That is an increase of more than 1,000 reports from 2016.

Despite the defeat of the hate crimes bill, Herring remains optimistic about legislation that aims to impede activity by white supremacist militias and similar militant groups.

SB 1210, sponsored by Sens. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, was approved by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee by a 7-6 vote and referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

The measure, which died in committee last year, was first introduced following the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. During that event, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd protesting the rally, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of other counter-demonstrators.

SB 1210 “provides that a person is guilty of unlawful paramilitary activity if such person assembles with another person with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons by drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm or explosive or incendiary device or any components or combination thereof,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

Such unlawful paramilitary activity would be punishable as a Class 5 felony, under the bill.

“Referring it to the Senate Finance Committee is a step in the right direction,” Herring stated. “It is time for the General Assembly to take action to protect Virginians and make sure that we prevent the kind of paramilitary activity that we saw in Charlottesville from ever happening again.”

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