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State hospital workers demand improved safety conditions

January 19, 2011 |  5:56 pm

About 200 staff members at troubled Napa State Hospital gathered outside the state psychiatric hospital Wednesday to demand improved safety conditions for themselves and the roughly 1,100 severely ill patients treated there.

The boisterous rally came nearly three months after psychiatric technician Donna Gross, 54, was strangled on hospital grounds. A patient has been charged in her death, and another patient is being held on assault charges in connection with a savage beating of a rehabilitation therapist just six weeks later that fractured the employee's skull in four places.

“Death Should Not Be the Price We Pay for Safety,” read one sign waved by a worker to honking supporters outside the hospital. “DMH Lets Nurses Die,” read another, echoing a common theme of anger toward the state Department of Mental Health, which operates the state hospitals, for ignoring repeated calls for better safety.

The staff had been seeking improved conditions for several years, internal memos and documents show, but complaints to management yielded no change. Gross’ slaying, however, has propelled psychiatric technicians, nurses, rehab therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and hospital police to work together in a rare show of unity to demand change.

Dr. Richard Frishman, a Napa State Hospital psychiatrist, held up a photo of himself with a battered and blackened face –- the result of a 2008 beating by a patient –- as he urged his fellow workers to demand  swift reform.

“Our mental institutions –- Napa State Hospital included –- are failing,” he said. “The men and women who take on this work that no one else will do need the tools to do it safely.”

Employee groups are asking for special units for the most violent patients –- many of whom have extensive criminal histories and hard-to-treat anti-social personality disorders that lead them to prey on more vulnerable patients. They are also seeking a greater hospital police presence, expedited methods for ordering involuntary medication for violent patients and for returning others to prisons, and more thorough violence assessments of patients before they land in the facility.

“Until then, we will continue to have deaths, we will continue to have injuries from which we cannot recover,” Kim Cowart, a Napa State Hospital nurse, told the crowd of co-workers who gathered Wednesday in front of an impromptu memorial of flowers adorned with a photo of Gross’ smiling face.

Cowart and others stressed that the patients are suffering equally and cannot receive proper treatment in an atmosphere of such fear and uncertainty.

Since 2006, the state hospitals have been subject to a federal consent judgment demanding improved treatment for patients, many of whom have been accused or convicted of committing crimes relating to their mental illness. Yet data through mid-2010 show that patient assaults on both staff and other patients have largely trended upward at the hospitals subject to the judgment. Napa, an aging bucolic facility, has seen a dramatically sharp spike in assaults since early 2009, leading many to call Gross’ death unsurprising.    

“We are not expendable,” Cowart bellowed to cheers. “We are not robots. You cannot just replace us. If we don’t matter to DMH, we matter to each other.”

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-- Lee Romney in Napa

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