Mental Health Care
7:05 am
Wed February 15, 2012

Washington Senate Toughens Treatment of Violence in Mental Hospitals

SEATTLE, Wash. -- A bill aimed at improving the safety of workers in mental hospitals passed the Washington state senate on Monday. KUOW's John Ryan reports from Seattle.

Hundreds of employees at Western State Hospital in Lakewood are assaulted by their patients each year. Kate Severson is one of the Western employees KUOW interviewed last year for our series on workplace safety.

Severson: "If a patient spits on a police officer in jail, or out there, that's a fourth–degree assault. But we can come here and be spit on all day."

Assaulting a health care worker is a felony in Washington. But Western employees say those assaults are rarely taken seriously.

The new bill would stop jails from refusing to book mental patients accused of a crime just because they live in a mental hospital. It would also make assaulting a mental hospital worker as serious an offense as attacking a corrections officer. The bill passed the Senate 48 to 1. Republican State Senator from Lakewood Mike Carrell sponsored it.

Carrell: "The poor worker at Western or Eastern State Hospital that's had his head or her head bashed in, or boiling water thrown in their face, with second-degree burns, is sitting there saying, 'I'm getting no justice!' That's the problem."

Carrell says one of the solutions is to make mental hospital patients face consequences for lashing out at their caregivers.

David Lord is an attorney with the group Disability Rights Washington. He says booking more mental patients into jail is not a solution.

Lord: "That's just moving people that the system's having a difficult time dealing with from one setting to another and to a setting, really, that's less well adapted to treat them, which is a jail."

Lord says better staffing levels and better training are more appropriate responses to the problem of violence at the state's mental institutions.

His group supports another bill that passed the senate this week. It would force the state to evaluate the mental competency of defendants more quickly. That would reduce the weeks or months mentally ill defendants often spend in jail awaiting evaluations to see if they're competent to stand trial. Both bills now move to the house of representatives.

Copyright 2012 KUOW