Transparency is in ASH's, and public's, best interests

Attacks should be publicized for their severe consequences

September 10, 2012 

Atascadero State Hospital’s decision that it would no longer release information on many acts of violence — including assaults on staff members — was outrageous. Apparently, it also was short-lived.

“There was some confusion,” said Kathy Gaither, chief deputy director of the Department of State Hospitals. “The person at the hospital got overly restrictive. We’re not trying to hide behind anything, and we’re not trying to be restrictive.”

Gaither said her department is trying to improve transparency, and, to that end, ASH is working out a way to provide information on assaults and other violent incidents on a timely basis.

That’s an abrupt change from last week.

As Tribune writer Tonya Strickland reported then, ASH administration had indicated that it would only release information about the most serious attacks on workers those requiring hospitalization — as well as patient escapes, murders and suicides.

That bar was way too high; not even an assault requiring a trip to a hospital emergency room would be deemed worthy of reporting under that hierarchy.

To be clear, prior to that ASH had never been especially forthcoming, but when asked, would at least provide some basic information about assaults. Over time, that information became even more limited, until the latest — since abandoned — edict came down.

We believe such withholding of information would have been a huge disservice to ASH employees, to the public and, yes, to patients.

Without an accurate picture of the frequency of assaults and other acts of violence, support for necessar y reforms and improvements — which has been high among both the public and certain lawmakers — could weaken.

For that reason, we believe it’s in the best interests of ASH and other state hospitals to be as upfront as possible about all incidents.

We’ll continue to press for that information and as many details as we can obtain — within limits of privacy laws.

The Tribune doesn’t seek out this information to be a thorn in the side of ASH administrators, or because it’s a slow news day and we can find nothing better to do.

We seek it out because we recognize that, even if an attack doesn’t cause serious or even moderate injur y, that doesn’t mean there aren’t emotional or psychological consequences.

We seek it out because readers have a right to know how a public, taxpayer-funded institution operates.

We seek it out because there is a serious problem with violence, not only at ASH, but at all California’s state hospitals, and we believe the best way to prevent future incidents — such as the 2010 murder of psychiatric technician Donna Gross at Napa State Hospital — is to document what occurs day-to-day.

We’re encouraged that authorities at ASH and the Department of State Hospitals now appear willing to provide information on all acts of violence — not just the most egregious incidents — in a timely manner.

However, we believe the recent “confusion” over the release of information points to the need for more clearly defined policies and guidelines — preferably in writing — that will ensure ongoing communications.

If the Department of State Hospitals is sincere about increasing transparency, we strongly urge it to develop such a plan.

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