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California mental hospitals are dangerous, legislators told

Violence is an increasing problem, as reflected by a patient's slaying of a psychiatric technician, witnesses say. More than 90% of current patients have been arrested or convicted of crimes.

August 24, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Jess Willard Massey, right, the Napa State Hospital patient who pleaded no contest to the killing of psychiatric technician Donna Gross last October, is led out of Napa County Superior Court on Tuesday morning after his sentencing in the death.
Jess Willard Massey, right, the Napa State Hospital patient who pleaded… (J.L. Sousa / Napa Valley…)

Reporting from Sacramento -- At an Assembly committee hearing on safety issues at the state's mental hospitals, lawmakers Tuesday received testimony about faulty alarm systems, daily assaults and an increasing number of patients with criminal histories.

Assemblyman Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa) convened the Select Committee on Hospital Safety to explore solutions to violence at California's five psychiatric facilities.

"All you need to know is that last year we had over 8,000 aggressive incidents and over 5,000 injuries," said Allen, a former psychiatric nurse. "Every one of those incidents is a tragedy in its own right."

The hearing came 10 months to the day after Napa psychiatric technician Donna Gross was strangled by a patient with a history of predatory violence while on the outside grounds, where alarms do not work. Gross, 54, had spent nearly 14 years caring for the mentally ill. A family friend read a letter Tuesday from her adult daughter, Anna Bock, that stressed that reform has not come fast enough.

"The damage by countless assaults on patients and staff has no doubt spread like a sickness to their families," Bock wrote. "Each moment that passes without change allows another split second for an attack to take place."

California Department of Mental Health officials testified that they were making slow progress in hiring more security and direct care staff. With more than 90% of current patients having been arrested or convicted of crimes, said acting department Director Cliff Allenby, it is time to reconsider staffing ratios, create special units for the worst aggressors and improve the safety of the grounds.

Allen, who plans more hearings, stressed his desire to set concrete goals to reduce violence and press for the funding needed to accomplish them — not assign blame.

But the tone of the testimony was critical.

Workers recounted being overburdened by paperwork and forced to work overtime. And daily assaults take staff members away from their jobs as they rush to the aid of patients or one another.

Dr. Patricia Tyler, a Napa psychiatrist, said staff members had written numerous memos to top mental health officials before Gross' death, complaining about safety lapses and outlining potential fixes. Nothing was done.

Division of Occupational Safety and Health Chief Ellen Widess said the agency had cited three state hospitals in the last year: Napa for an inadequate injury prevention plan and faulty alarm system, Metro for failure to recognize known safety hazards and Atascadero for an assault that left a staff member with head trauma.

The Department of Mental Health has appealed the citations so all ordered fixes are on hold — a fact that Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) called disheartening.

Asked by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) why it took a staff death for the department to commit to substantial changes, Allenby was blunt and brief. "We can't answer that," he said.

lee.romney@latimes.com

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