Top 10 Stories of 2011: No. 8 — ASH violence moved state to reforms

Editor’s note: This is No. 8 of The Tribune’s Top 10 stories of 2011 as selected by the newsroom staff. Each day through New Year’s Day we will count down to the top story of the year.

Another year of beatings and stabbings at Atascadero State Hospital has sparked public outcry for change.

Partly in response to this year’s violence, efforts by a state senator, unions and state officials have been advanced in order to reform violence-ridden mental hospitals.

State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, has been working to protect staff at the North County facility by toughening how patients are handled at the court level. Employee unions continue to advocate for increased staff safety. Meanwhile, an overhaul of the state’s management of mental health facilities will begin in the coming months, following on the heels of the removal of federal controls.

Blakeslee said he’s working on more laws to protect staff at ASH and four other state hospitals that treat violent offenders who are mentally ill.

Safety is a priority among the local employee unions representing doctors, nurses, psychiatric technicians and others who work to stabilize and treat hundreds of patients. At Atascadero, about 2,100 employees work at the facility licensed for 1,275 beds.

In the fall, hospital employee groups statewide held vigils to honor the late Donna Gross, the psychiatric technician strangled by a patient at Napa State Hospital a year ago. They say keeping the issue of employee safety in the public spotlight is ongoing.

On the state level, officials announced earlier this month that the Department of Mental Health will become the new Department of State Hospitals. Its focus will shift from overseeing a variety of mental health programs statewide to focusing solely on the five state hospitals and two psychiatric prison programs that treat the mentally ill.

These changes were closely followed by the end of another era — one in which a federal court order placed on ASH and three other state hospitals in the name of patient civil rights was lifted in November.

The rules had limited the use of seclusion and medication since 2006, which many said contributed to increased rates of violent behavior in patients.

Staff injuries related to aggression have generally increased at ASH in recent years — 98 in 2005, 74 in 2006, 84 in 2007, 105 in 2008 and 135 in 2009. Comparable statistics in 2010 and 2011 weren’t immediately available, but four attacks on six employees were reported in a span of seven days earlier this month.

None of the attacks resulted in an arrest, but one could lead to felony charges. Those close to the hospital say it’s financially prohibitive to charge ASH patients with misdemeanors because of the strain it puts on County Jail and the courts.

That’s why Blakeslee is working with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office to make it a felony for mentally disordered offenders to assault employees.

Mentally disordered offenders are among the patients who are paroled to the state hospitals after serving time in prison.

“The goal of the legislation is to ensure consistent protections for employees no matter which facility they work in,” Blakeslee said in an email.

He’s also developing a policy that he says will help make court referrals more accurate in order to cut back on misdiagnoses of violent offenders. He said one study found that offenders were being inappropriately referred to state hospitals, which can contribute to violence. Part of the plan would allow for state hospital workers “to observe and assess a newly referred patient for 30 days before a court referral is permanent,” Blakeslee said.

The series previously

No. 9 — Two men are accused of kidnapping and torturing another man in a California Valley trailer.

No. 10 — Ian Parkinson becomes sheriff of San Luis Obispo County.

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