WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Sheriffs from 59 Kansas counties have sent a letter to Governor Laura Kelly demanding changes at Larned State Hospital (LSH). They criticized management and state policies and said the leaders “created a culture that has become a quagmire of red tape and bureaucracy.”

One of the problems highlighted in the letter focuses on what happened during John Colt’s escape from Larned. However, the sheriffs say other problems put the public in danger and bring disservice to the mentally ill.

Colt was in the “Sexual Predator Treatment Program” at LSH. He escaped on June 30 and wasn’t found until late September in Utah. Three women who were employed at LSH were later arrested and accused of helping him escape.

“They (LSH) failed to notify any law enforcement for five hours,” Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir said.

Barton County is immediately northeast of Pawnee County, where LSH is located.

“I’m not sure I’ve gotten a straight answer,” Pawnee County Sheriff Scott King said about why it took LSH more than five hours to contact law enforcement about Colt’s escape.

“I posed that question directly (to the superintendent), and I did not get a response,” Bellendir said.

KSN took this question directly to Laura Howard, the secretary of the Kansas Department For Aging and Disability Services, the agency that oversees LSH.

“That’s been part of the internal investigation that we’ve done relating to escape, and frankly, that should not have happened,” Howard said. “There should’ve been notification far earlier.”

The sheriffs’ letter to the governor mentioned other concerns, including who can accept patients and what appears to be a lack of cooperation accepting patients who are going through a mental health crisis. In some cases, the sheriffs said their deputies were left with no choice but to sit with people at the jail.

“It’s taken too long, like Sheriff Bellendir said. I’ve seen them sit in the back of a squad room for 16 hours or more, 72 hours,” Sheriff King said. “I want to see that we’re the voice for the mental health person in the real life crisis, and that’s the only thing we’re trying to do, but every time we try to, we don’t get the help.”

We asked Howard if policies need to change regarding who can accept mental health patients.

“You know, I don’t know,” she said. “Because it’s interesting, we’re in a time where we have a lot of changes going on in our mental health system that are really about trying to expand capacity. We’re in the process of developing contracts with community hospitals across who have psychiatric units to serve as what we’re calling state institution alternative beds.”

Howard did say LSH already faced challenges like staffing shortages and a high turnover rate. She said the pandemic exacerbated the problem.

KSN asked both sheriffs what they would like to see come out of the letter they wrote and what kind of action they want the state and the governor to take.

“Let’s quit talking,” Bellendir said. “Let’s make some serious changes. This is at a crisis level.”

KSN Digital Extra – Interview with the sheriffs