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January 26, 2006 : California : The State

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Mental Hospital Employees Meet to Decry Staffing Crisis

  • Hundreds hear stories of attacks by patients and demand action by lawmakers. Some urge a halt to accepting really aggressive criminals.

  • By Lee Romney, Times Staff Writer

    ATASCADERO, Calif. — Several hundred employees of the state mental hospital here packed a meeting room Wednesday to decry a crisis in staffing that they say has strained their psyches and imperiled their safety.

    Many broke down in tears as they shared stories of beatings by patients, nightmares and stressed personal relationships that have followed two years of frequent back-to-back, 16-hour shifts. The meeting was called by a grass-roots group and attended by representatives from the offices of state legislators from the Central Coast.

    "I take care of … staff who have been assaulted," said Tim Foster, a nurse at Atascadero State Hospital's urgent-care unit, his voice cracking. "I see them firsthand. This has got to stop. We will have an incident of loss of life. We're headed that way.

    "Sacramento," he said, "Please, please come to your senses and remedy this situation."

    The meeting comes months after a brutal assault on a diminutive psychiatric technician by two patients here. Atascadero, whose patients are funneled through the criminal justice system, has seen a 66% jump in hitting, kicking and other aggressive acts against staff members in the last two years, according to state statistics.

    Such assaults at Metropolitan State Hospital, in Norwalk, doubled in the same period. On Wednesday, members of the California Assn. of Psychiatric Technicians picketed at that hospital to demand an end to mandatory overtime shifts that they say leave staff and patients there more vulnerable to assault or injury.

    "Excessive overtime leads to poor patient care," said one sign. "Exhausted & Overworked — if I wanted to be incarcerated, I would have committed a crime," another said.

    Metropolitan spokeswoman Cathy Bernarding said the hospital was reviewing the union's grievances and would meet with its representatives Friday.

    Staff members at other facilities — Napa State Hospital and Patton State Hospital — have raised similar concerns. A new facility at Coalinga has received only 150 patients so far but already is having difficulty recruiting staff, according to employees from Coalinga who attended the Atascadero meeting.

    California Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Kirsten Macintyre said in a telephone interview that the department's top brass had not been invited to the meeting. She said, however, that they were aware of the problems and searching for legislative and other solutions.

    Atascadero State Hospital Executive Director Mel Hunter sat quietly through the three-hour meeting, saying afterward that employees' distress would not be ignored.

    The hospital, which had been more than 100 patients above its licensed capacity of 1,275, dipped below that level this week, Hunter said. He added that he was working closely with Sacramento to attract more employees.

    Though the issues play out at all the state hospitals, it is Atascadero that has seen the greatest staffing shortage, with a quarter of budgeted positions vacant — even more if one counts staffers taking leave due to work-related injuries. Some of them turned out Wednesday, along with others beaten so badly that they will never return.

    Stephen Baird-Gann was beaten unconscious and suffered a broken nose, collapsed sinus and some brain damage that rendered him too disabled to return, he said.

    As his mother sat behind him, other staffers approached Baird-Gann to hug and kiss him. "I can't go back and won't go back," he quietly told the crowd. "For those who have been assaulted and went back, God bless you, but that's not me."

    The toll on personal lives was clear as employees recounted struggles with addiction, physical illness, exhaustion and marital strife. Family members also spoke up. Among them was Dave Hanson, a burly man whose wife has worked as a psychiatric technician at the hospital for 27 years. Though she long enjoyed her work, he said, he now often wakes her, screaming, from nightmares in which she is being assaulted.

    She has just over a year until retirement, but Hanson said he doubts that she will make it.

    "She has migraines now and cries two or three times a week, and I can't do anything about it," he said. "I'm a biker…. I've been one ever since I could throw my leg over a Harley, and I can't help my little wife."

    Then Hanson too cried.

    Many employees who spoke noted that the hospital has been forced to accept particularly aggressive criminals. Some workers suggested a moratorium on new patients until more employees could be hired. They also called on legislators to make it a felony for a patient to assault a staff member.

    Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) plans to introduce such legislation. When his field representative, Ann Hatch, addressed the crowd, some people heckled her, saying that a previous attempt to pass such a law — by state Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) — had failed.

    Maldonado said in a telephone interview after the meeting that he doubted such a measure would pass now either. But "I want to sit down with [the department] and Blakeslee and come up with a big-picture solution," he said. "People in any workplace deserve to be safe."

    Listening with concern at the meeting were Rae Belle Gambs, the San Luis Obispo County president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and the national organization's California president, Ralph Nelson.

    Gambs praised Atascadero staff members as "angels" for caring for her son, but decried the lack of community mental health care that could have prevented him from being committed to an institution.

    Nelson echoed her concerns, adding that he feared rage among staff members could lead some to see all patients as enemies.


    Times staff writer Valerie Reitman contributed to this report.

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