Families of Two Mental Health Patients Who Drowned in Sheriff's Van Want Answers


Hurricane Florence took the lives of two women, Wendy Newton and Nicolette Green, who were being transported by law enforcement to a psychiatric facility in South Carolina during the storm, according to the New York Times. The women were riding in the back of a sheriff’s van driven by two deputies when water overtook the car. The two deputies escaped the vehicle and were rescued. The two patients inside drowned. Now, their families want to know what happened.

“Why the hell would they leave a safe, dry area to go to God knows what?” Allison Newton, the daughter of Wendy Newton, asked the Times. “Something feels wrong about this.”

“[The deputies] got out and tried to get the ladies out,” Sheriff Phillip E. Thompson of Horry County said at a press conference. The sheriff said that he wasn’t sure how long the deputies struggled to save the women, but it could have been 45 minutes. The position of the van or the pressure of the water may have made it difficult. Both deputies are now on administrative leave, and the department says it’s investigating.

Why exactly the women were committed and transported during a hurricane was unclear. From the Times:

The women were not being evacuated from floodwaters. They were both being taken from hospitals, where they had come voluntarily, to mental health facilities, where they had been committed. At the news conference, Sheriff Thompson said that his department had been responding to a court order to transport the women. On Wednesday, family members said they had heard nothing about any orders.
It is routine, and required under state law, for law enforcement to transport people who are involuntarily committed and who are determined by a physician “as posing an imminent risk of harm to him or herself by virtue of mental illness,” according to a statement from the state Department of Mental Health. It was unclear to the families whether the women had expressed an intent to harm themselves or anyone else.

One politician also expressed bafflement about the situation to the Associated Press:

Justin Bamberg, a state lawmaker and lawyer who has represented the families of several people injured or killed by law enforcement officers, said he’s perplexed by the decision to transport anyone in such uncertain weather conditions.
“If that road is in an area where it is a flood risk, and waters were rising, why were they driving on that road anyway?” he said. “People need to know exactly how it happened. It makes it seem like someone took a very unnecessary risk in creating the problem in the first place.”

Some early reports said that the women were in handcuffs when they drowned. Sheriff Thompson said this was unlikely, but he couldn’t confirm it wasn’t the case.

“Why would they chain her and another lady to the back of a truck?” Allison Newton asked the Times. “Why didn’t they tell us she was being transported? Why were they going through floodwaters knowing how dangerous it’s been?”

“That’s my mother,” she added.

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