May 18, 2013

Understaffed, undersized and under siege: Riverview hospital struggles with safety

'We have major concerns about health and safety at Riverview, and we're trying to address them long-term,' union representative says

By Betty Adams
Staff Writer

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This aerial photo, taken on April 30, shows The Riverview Psychiatric Center on banks of Kennbec River in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Following the attack, the Department of Corrections stepped in to provide security first with state corrections officers, then sought and received aid from the county sheriff.

"I view this as being a good stakeholder in the entire system," Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said of the corrections officer deal. "We're trying to find the best way to help — and the mentally ill clients need to be the least restricted — while maintaining order and safety for the staff. We're able to do that with ease."

Corrections officers stationed at the hospital carry a chemical agent, Cap-Stun pepper spray, and a Taser stun gun, but no firearms, Liberty said.

Murphy was arrested four days after the assault and brought to the county jail in Augusta. He is being held at the Maine State Prison.

The victim, meanwhile, remains "extremely emotionally traumatized," said Perry.

She said she sat in on an in-house Riverview investigation into why and how the attack occurred.

"Employees were being brutally honest" about their safety concerns and administrators listened, she said. "I feel seriously that the intent is to start addressing issues that make people feel safer. It's a shame that something like this had to happen to get it addressed."

She said that previously there was an expectation that "you're going to get hurt dealing with these types of clients."

"Our position is that it shouldn't be the expectation," Perry said.

Injuries decline

Chances are that if someone works at Riverview long enough, he or she will be hurt by a patient — sometimes intentionally. The hospital has about 300 employees, all but 30 on site, and there are an average of 79 patients at the hospital every day.

Patients are responsible for at least half of the injuries to staff that are reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Many of those assaults are committed by forensic patients — patients who have committed violent or serious criminal acts but have been deemed not responsible for their actions because of mental incompetence.

"The current situation is not safe for the staff or for the patients," said Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties. "The state is obligated to hold some very dangerous people whom the legal system does not designate as criminals due to their mental illness."

On Monday, Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen testified in support of a bill that would put a mental health unit on Department of Corrections property.

"Riverview does not have the same tools as corrections facilities to manage aggressive, assaultive, and violent behavior," she told the legislative committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety.

She also told legislators that keeping an aggressive, violent patient limits the number of beds available on that unit.

"Safety is top priority for administration," McEwen said in an earlier interview. "We're constantly looking at how we can make this a safer place because there's things that can happen from slips and falls in the parking lot to an altercation between a staffer as well as a client assaulting a staff person."

McEwen said an environmental safety committee conducts regular rounds looking for safety issues and that a number of upgrades have likely contributed to the decrease in total injuries: additional lighting and security cameras in the parking lot and more cameras inside the hospital to get rid of blind spots.

"We have someone sitting in operations 24/7 watching all the cameras," McEwen said.

Records of the Maine Capitol Police — the force that polices state property — show that officers responded to calls to the hospital an average of 210 times a year from 2009 through 2012.

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Mark Murphy

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