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House bill addresses safety of mental health workers

Thursday, February 11, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Former employees of Fulton State Hospital told a House committee horror stories of vicious assaults at the hands of patients, arguing the necessity of a House bill that would legally justify the use of force by caregivers to defend themselves.

Joe Van Norman, a Fulton resident who has worked at the facility for 21 years, said he had his jaw broken in two places. After returning to work six weeks later, a counselor said he was showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jered Crawford, an Auxvasse resident, fought back tears as he described the injuries he endured on the job: broken ribs, knife wounds, three concussions and 50 punches to the face. When he fought back, he was moved to an "intermediate" security ward at the facility. There, he said, a patient slammed his face into a steel door.

These were two of the five employees who testified in front of the House Corrections and Public Institutions Committee on behalf of a bill that would legally justify the use of force in self-defense by caregivers, thereby protecting them from prosecution.

But, in its current language, the bill would reach further to include teachers and parents defending themselves from children.

State Rep. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, the bill's sponsor, said that despite the broad-based language of the bill, she intended it to address problems with the Fulton institution, which houses the criminally insane. The bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 37 representatives, which includes most of the Corrections Committee.

"This was a way to get people to actually listen to what is happening in Fulton," Riddle said. "If you can't move the mountain, you work a way around it."

Mental Health Department Director Keith Schaefer acknowledged the dangers of working at the facility and said workers compensation for employees at the facility has risen from $800,000 to $4 million in the last five years.

"It's a very tough place that deals with very, very tough people," Schaefer said.

But he said two widely publicized deaths in state-run mental health facilities in 2005 urged a "change in culture" in the department that emphasized patient safety.

"That caused a reaction that I believe went too far the other way," Schaefer said.

Schaefer said there is a "perception" by employees at the facility that many are losing jobs because they are neglecting patients. He said the department has dismissed 40 staff members since last July and only five for reasons of abuse and neglect of patients at the facility.

Schaefer said Riddle's bill would not address the problem of workplace injuries and blamed the high injury rates on bad conditions at the facility.

Riddle said she would prefer to see a change in Mental Health Department policies to protect employees, instead of a change in state statutes, so that the department can "tweak" their policies as they see fit.

"If you have a law out there, it's very difficult to change," Riddle said.

The committee will continue hearing the bill on Feb. 17.


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