Public Safety

Four alleged assaults on Independence workers draw union outcry

AFSCME blames understaffing, poor training at Mental Health Institute

The Independence Mental Health Institute, seen in September 2009, is one of two state-run mental health facilities in Iowa. AFSCME, the union representing staff members at the Independence institute, says understaffing and poor training led to four alleged assaults on staff members this month. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The Independence Mental Health Institute, seen in September 2009, is one of two state-run mental health facilities in Iowa. AFSCME, the union representing staff members at the Independence institute, says understaffing and poor training led to four alleged assaults on staff members this month. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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The union representing staff at the Independence Mental Health Institute says understaffing and poor training led to four alleged assaults on staff in two weeks this month.

AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan released a statement Wednesday describing three alleged assaults on June 6 and one on June 14.

A patient who escaped restraints struck a residential treatment worker in the head and jaw at least three times June 6, Homan said. The employee now is using workers’ compensation for a head injury, cervical sprain and jaw pain, he said.

The same day, a patient punched a registered nurse in the nose and scratched her repeatedly, Homan said. The nurse then gave two-weeks notice and was transferred to the sex offender unit with only one other staff member, another residential treatment worker, Homan said.

“The (residential treatment worker) was then assaulted by a patient shortly after the RN arrived on the unit,” Homan said in the news release.

The worker continued in the unit until called away for another situation, leaving the nurse alone in the sex offender unit, Homan said.

“Fed up with poor training, mandatory overtime, and low morale, she resigned immediately following that fearful shift.”

On June 14, another residential treatment worker reported being assaulted by a patient, who Homan said slammed the worker’s head into a wall and punched him or her.

Buchanan County Sheriff Bill Wolfgram said no assault charges have been filed in connection with these allegations, but an MHI staff member did call the sheriff’s office June 14 about an alleged assault and was supposed to come into the office this week to file an official report.

The state Department of Human Services, which oversees Iowa’s two mental health institutes, did not respond to The Gazette’s questions Wednesday about whether these alleged assaults had been reported to the state, but said officials take seriously the health and safety of employees.

The department trains staff in how to de-escalate potentially violent situations and, if necessary, physically hold patients, spokesman Matt Highland said.

“Independence management searches out and implements new and improved methods to improve safety for its patients and staff,” he said. “Unfortunately, due to the nature of the work injuries do occur. However, staff injuries are down from a year ago.”

Highland said the Independence MHI has four open positions and is constantly recruiting and hiring.

AFSCME’s report about the alleged assaults come days after Gov. Kim Reynolds asked Jerry Foxhoven to resign as Human Services director. Reynolds has not said why she fired Foxhoven, only that she wants to take the agency in a “new direction.”

Tina Suckow, a former nurse at the Independence MHI, told the Des Moines Register last month she continues to recover from a neurological ailment and surgeries following an October attack by a patient. The state fired Suckow in March, days after her federal medical leave ran out, because she had been denied time off without pay, the Register reported.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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