School of Social Work

No. 28 M.S.W. Program in the U.S.

Dear School of Social Work community,

As many of us learned Thursday about the death of Irvo Otieno, we experienced an all-too-familiar mix of anguish and trauma. We grieve for the Richmond community who lost a son, a friend, a neighbor; and we grieve for those who are unable to safely receive support for mental health challenges. We grieve for parents and children who continue to live in fear within our community. Ten people – Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and hospital staff members – have been charged with second-degree murder in the March 6 killing of Otieno at the Central State Hospital in Petersburg. 

Otieno was suffering a mental health crisis, according to his close family, and the incident  echoes the death of Marcus-David Peters nearly five years ago. The VCU graduate was unarmed and having a mental health episode when he was fatally shot by police in 2018.

Despite reform at Central State and plans for a new, modernized facility; and the establishment of the Marcus-David Peters Act of 2020, we see continued need for advocacy and change. The act created the Marcus Alert System, which seeks to provide a specialized behavioral health response by law enforcement to behavioral health emergencies. It provides support from city and county behavioral health agencies in five regions in the commonwealth.  

These macro-level changes, though, are undercut by any single tragedy like Otieno’s death, which shines a harsh light on the everyday challenges faced by those who are most vulnerable and affected by systemic inequities. These events serve as a reminder of the vital role social workers play as advocates for system-level changes; as providers of direct care for individuals, families and communities; and as supporters who help empower and give voice to those who are directly impacted and can share their lived experiences.

I encourage you to take action in ways that feel authentic and important to you – to discuss the issues and possible solutions in your classes, with your fellow students or colleagues, in your field placements, or in other interactions on campus or in your local communities. And, as always, talk about your feelings; help, comfort and be kind to one another; and practice self-care or seek counsel as needed.

Additional resources/reading

Rebecca Gomez signature

Rebecca Gomez, Ph.D.
Interim Dean and Associate Professor
VCU School of Social Work

Gary S. Cuddeback signature

Gary S. Cuddeback, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Research and Professor
Interim Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs
VCU School of Social Work 

Categories Community, From the dean
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