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Family of Kirk Cowart releases apology and appeal for better mental health care

Posted at 9:56 PM, Oct 22, 2014
and last updated 2015-02-09 18:13:41-05

Virginia Beach, Va. - The family of the Virginia Beach man who took a hatchet into Salem High School and was arrested last week has issued an apology and an appeal.

Kirk Cowart’s mental condition has now become the focus of how he got to where he is, what should happen next and the treatment he's receiving in the meantime as he sits in the Virginia Beach Correctional Center.

Cowart’s mother, sister and brother issued the following statement on Wednesday:

"As the rest of Kirk Cowart’s immediate family, Barbara Cowart (mother), Erin Cowart (sister), and Ian Cowart (brother), we want to take the opportunity to apologize as a family for one of our own. We express our sincere apologies for his behavior, and sympathize with the faculty, staff, parents and students of Salem High School. All four Cowart kids are graduates of Salem High  School. Our former teachers and staff have reached out to try to help him. They know and love him just as much as we do and we are working towards providing some understanding of the plight of Veterans with mental issues.

We do agree with Rob Cowart - father, that Veterans Affairs should take some degree of  responsibility in his long-term health care. After an attempted suicide while in the USMC he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disease/slight schizophrenia, Depressive Disorder in 2014 at the Waco, Texas Veterans Affairs Hospital. By his doctor's recommendation he pursued school as an opportunity for recovery and newfound stability. No matter what he had to work against, he wanted to do better for himself and contribute to society. Don’t we all?

We are astonished and dismayed that WAVY 10 would post this entire interview online. We feel the jailhouse interview lacks journalistic integrity. Kirk was clearly not of sound mind at the time he was asked to consent. We find it unconscionable that either WAVY 10 or WTKR’s reporters could have thought it was a good idea to interview him in that state. Even the mentally ill deserve their right to privacy, even if they cannot exercise it fully. Journalists and news professionals should try informing rather than scaring their audiences.

Mental health is a serious issue, and as a family we have and will continue to support him as he deals with the repercussions of this incident. Regardless of the negative popular opinion stemming from this questionable interview. We will continue standing by Kirk Beckwith Cowart through his recovery. He deserves our love and support, and he will get nothing less."

The day after Cowart’s arrest, his father Rob contacted NewsChannel 3 to talk about the failure of the VA system to help his son.

“Here’s what the face of mental illness looks like post-service to your country. We need help,” he says.

Cowart’s story has raised new questions about the mental health care system. This comes a year after the high-profile case of Gus Deeds, who stabbed his father, Senator Creigh Deeds, before shooting himself.

Gus Deeds was released after a mental health evaluation a week earlier because no psychiatric bed was found for him.

NewsChannel 3 respects the Cowart family’s opinion.

Our decision to air Rob Cowart’s interview is part of our ongoing coverage of mental health issues in Virginia.

Cowart’s case will not work its way through the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, Cowart remains in the Virginia Beach Correctional Center where the Sheriff says he won’t just sit in a cell, but he’ll be able to get the help he needs.

Sheriff Ken Stolle says the treatment of inmates with mental illnesses is a topic he takes very seriously.

When he became Sheriff nearly five years ago, it’s something he says he committed to changing in the jail after he served in the Virginia Beach Senate, where he was on the Health and Human Services Committee.

“These people would come in with these problems all the time and I had to deal with them and I became what I consider to be touched by the problem,” he says.

When he came to Virginia Beach, inmates with mental illnesses were sent to a small locked room to sit by themselves.

“I called it the dungeon. It’s not a place anybody should be kept in. I was embarrassed we kept people there,” he says.

He decided that needed to change and created a series of rooms and pods for inmates who are suffering from similar conditions. And in those rooms, they’ll never be left alone.

“We try to get them into an environment where they can start working together and develop some personal skills where they can go on the outside,” he says.

If an inmate is suicidal, they’re sent to a pink or blue room under 24 hour watch. Eventually, they’ll be moved to a larger group where they can interact with others in a wider room with a recreation area – a much different atmosphere than in previous years.

“I have inmates come up to me and say, ‘Sheriff, I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to get out of here,’” he says. “It makes me feel like I’m doing my job and makes me feel the system hasn’t just ignored these people.”

Kirk Cowart is expected to appear in court for a bond hearing on Thursday morning.

 Related: 

Bond hearing for hatchet-wielding school trespasser continued until Thursday

Father of man who brought hatchet to Beach school: ‘this is what the face of mental illness looks like’

Man found inside Salem High School with hatchet: ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’