FARGO — Some employees at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown complain that concerns over violent patient assaults against workers are not being heard and they have now launched an online petition seeking the removal of two top administrators.
But at least one state official who oversees the hospital says the employee concerns aren't widespread and assaults and worker injuries have been declining in recent years.
The online petition, posted on change.org, argues that new leadership is needed at the state psychiatric hospital. The petition so far has gathered more than 350 signatures. It seeks the removal of Superintendent Rosalie Etherington and Clinical Director Melanie Flynn.
“We now have staff literally leaving in ambulances,” the petition introduction said. “How much longer till one of us leaves in a hearse? Not only are we getting increasingly violent patients, but also our safety and security measures drop.”
Eleven assaults have occurred at the state hospital this year, including two that resulted in aggravated assault charges being filed against patients, the Jamestown Sun has reported.
An anonymous person claiming to be a state hospital employee sent an email to the office of Gov. Doug Burgum to express concerns about staff safety and complaints that those concerns are not being addressed by hospital administrators.
“Staff just keep getting assaulted and Rosalie just keeps giving patients more and more freedom and restricts what staff can do to protect themselves,” said the email received Friday, June 21. The Forum obtained the email through an open records request.
“We can’t keep staff and no one wants to work here due to the assaults and fearing for lives,” the email said. “PLEASE HELP!!!!!”
An official with the North Dakota Department of Human Services, which runs the state hospital, said he toured the campus on Tuesday, June 25, talked to employees, and nobody expressed worries about security or safety.
Tom Eide, director of field services for the department, including the state hospital, also said assaults and worker injuries at the hospital have been trending down in recent years.
Reported assaults at the hospital since 2013 increased in 2014 and peaked in 2015 at more than 130, but have declined steadily since, falling below 100 last year, with this year’s pace trailing last year’s, Eide said.
Workplace injuries reported to the state’s workers’ compensation program show a similar downward trend, he said. Even if workers didn’t bother reporting the assaults at work, they would be more likely to report them to the insurance program so they could obtain benefits, he added.
“They’re comparable,” Eide said of the two trends. “There’s not this continuing increase in injuries that tell me I’m missing something. In 2016, employees reported almost 30 injuries to workers’ comp. Half way through this year, seven injuries were reported, he said.
“Clearly those two data points correlate,” Eide said.
Some of the recent assaults, including the two that resulted in criminal charges and caused serious injuries, involve inmates in the state penitentiary who are sent to the hospital for evaluations.
State hospital staff coordinate with corrections officials to try to make the transition from the prison to the hospital safe, Eide said.
In 2016, the hospital had 14 prison parolees, a number that dropped to four in 2017 and increased to 20 last year. This year, three prison parolees were sent to the hospital in the first quarter, the most recent figures available, Eide said.
“This is a number that goes up and down rather erratically over the years,” he said.
Are prison inmates causing the most serious assaults at the hospital?
“I don’t know that that specific issue is driving it,” Eide said.
The department has been working to create an open dialogue with workers through a workplace culture initiative, and workers in those meetings have not expressed concerns about the assaults or fears for their safety, Eide said.
“To suddenly see this, that’s disheartening for the culture we’re trying to create,” he said, referring to the anonymous letters and online petition. He said state hospital workers are welcome to call or email him with their concerns.
But the person who wrote the governor’s office said workers fear retaliation for speaking out.
“I hope I’m not the only (one) standing up, but I understand if I am, as everyone is afraid of the dictator and losing their jobs,” said the anonymous email to the governor.
“The governor has been briefed and is aware of longstanding efforts to reduce the incidence of violence at the State Hospital, and that safety and security measures are reviewed regularly,” Mike Nowatzki, Burgum’s communications director, said in a statement. “The safety of patients and team members remains a top priority of this administration.”