Bills aim to increase safety for state hospital patients, staff

Atascadero State Hospital
Atascadero State Hospital dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Last month’s slaying of an Atascadero State Hospital patient is a grim reminder of the violence two proposed laws targeting state hospital safety reforms would aim to combat.

Legislation that would allow clinicians to see patients’ criminal backgrounds and establish a special treatment program to segregate the state’s most violent mentally ill predators from less-violent patients are being considered by state leaders.

“These violent incidents continue, and we've got to do everything in our collective power to reduce assaults as much as possible,” said Brady Oppenheim, spokeswoman for the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians.

Violence is a common occurrence within the Department of State Hospitals, which runs five state hospitals tasked with treating mentally ill offenders from the courts and correctional system. Legislators, state employees and union groups are working on ways to balance patient care with protections for the staff.

In 2012, there were 3,149 aggressive acts against staff at state hospitals and 3,914 aggressive acts against other patients, according to state hospital data provided by San Luis Obispo Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian's office.

Killing at ASH

On the afternoon of May 28, Adam Cary, 34, allegedly lay on top of his roommate, 53-year-old patient Kevin Turner, and strangled him to death.

Cary, a convicted felon for attempted rape and assault, had a documented history of disturbing behavior involving religious and sexual delusions. He was in the process of being classified as a mentally disordered offender — one of the most violent categories a patient can have within the state department.

Turner, meanwhile, had been convicted of burglary, petty theft and involuntary manslaughter. Details about his mental state have not been made public.

His sister, Mary Lowry of Las Vegas, is devastated over her brother's killing and angry that Turner wasn’t segregated from the patients with more violent backgrounds.

Currently, patients are not roomed together based on past violent acts, according to officials from the Department of State Hospitals.

“Patient assignment to a room depends on assessment of the patient’s clinical needs, both medical and psychological,” spokesman Ken August said.

While a history of violence is included in their care assessments, it wasn’t immediately clear what types of histories such reports include.

The two proposed pieces of legislation could have kept Turner from being killed, union leaders say.

Legislation’s goals

The bills, which play off each other, would place state hospital patients with the most serious and violent behaviors in special treatment programs based on their past crimes and their aggressive histories.

The criminal background bill, called AB 1960 and authored by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, is sponsored by the Department of State Hospitals.

It would allow state hospital law enforcement and licensed mental health personnel access to patients’ criminal backgrounds — information that’s not always made available now.

“The bill will improve safety and security for patients and staff. It will also ensure appropriate placement and lead to better treatment outcomes for patients,” August said.

The two employee unions for state hospital police officers and doctors also support the bill.

“It is important that those planning for the patients’ treatment and security needs have all the information available before making treatment decisions,” said Alan Barcelona, California Statewide Law Enforcement Association union president.

“Allowing them to access the information in the state’s criminal justice database will make for a safer and more effective hospital system.”

A second bill, AB 1340, would place each hospital’s most violent patients in enhanced treatment programs in individual rooms with locking doors and away from the general patient populations inside each facility.

Co-authored by Achadjian, the enhanced treatment bill is sponsored by the psychiatric technicians union and is “really key to our efforts to improve patient and staff safety this year,” Oppenheim said.

The program is different than a pilot program with a similar name already established at Atascadero State Hospital.

In the proposed program, patients would “receive specialized services that keep them, their peers and staff safer,” Oppenheim said.

That proposal is key because it would treat violence as a mental illness, said Coby Pizzotti, a lobbyist for the psychiatric technician union.

“It’s almost treating a new disorder — and that’s the violent streak people have,” he said.

That’s because the enhanced treatment program would target certain chronically dangerous patients — as opposed to those who have momentary episodic acts of violence.

“The people in AB 1340 aren’t going to try to kill you because you bumped into them in the hall right then — they are going to wait three days and plot how to kill you,” Pizzotti said.

On Wednesday, the Senate Health Committee approved the bill — with state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, abstaining from the vote.

Both bills are heading to the Senate Public Safety Committee for consideration next.

A third safety bill, from Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, called for increasing the staff-to-patient ratios at the five state hospitals. It lost steam in May because it was too expensive to hire more employees.

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