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Staffer members conduct an informational picket Wednesday, May 29, 2019, at the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, where concerns about safe working conditions have been mounting. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Anoka state hospital employees air safety concerns

ANOKA, Minn. — Staff at the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center say safety conditions have deteriorated so badly at the state-run psychiatric hospital that many are afraid to go to work.

Workers say staff members have been knocked unconscious, dragged across the floor by their hair and had feces and urine thrown at them. Recently, a nurse was hospitalized after being beaten by a patient — it was the 28th injury at the center due to patient aggression that was reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration this year.

Incidents like these have become common since the facility began taking more patients after being found either incompetent to stand trial or a danger to themselves.

“It is not set up to deal with people who should be in jail,” said Jennell Pettit, a social worker at Anoka Metro who joined colleagues for an informational picket in front of the facility Wednesday, May 30. Carrying signs that read “Assaulted,” nurses, counselors and other workers are demanding more staff and better security.

Police no longer provide security

Right now, the facility has no independent security at all.

Last year, facility management and Anoka police agreed to end a security agreement because of concerns over how the facility’s license limits the response to patients who are agitated or violent. Therapeutic de-escalation practices are required instead of police tactics.

Since that arrangement ended, staffers have been trained to address situations when patients become agitated. They constantly wear communication devices to summon help and are able to intervene physically if there is a safety risk.

Carrie Mortud, a staffing specialist at the Minnesota Nurses Association, said that’s not good enough. Workers want round-the-clock professional security to ensure the safety of staff, visitors and patients not sent to the center from area jails.

“They’ve been very clear they want security that is not delivering care and is in a uniform,” Mortud said.

Anoka Metro is operated by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, and Commissioner Tony Lourey met with workers earlier this week. State officials say they are working to address the concerns raised by staff.

“Nurses and other staff who care for patients in our psychiatric facilities have difficult and potentially dangerous jobs. I recognize and respect that they face challenges every day,” Lourey said in a statement. “Safety is a shared priority, and I’m confident that together we can address those concerns in a meaningful way.”

More referrals from jails

Anoka Metro has seen an increase in the number of referrals from area jails after a change in state law in 2013 required priority admission be given to jailed patients who have been civilly committed by a court. A state-operated facility in St. Peter is typically the first choice for those patients, but the growing number who fit that criteria means many are sent to the Anoka facility.

The center has 110 beds, and currently 83 of them are occupied by patients. About half of those patients were civilly committed by a court, but the number fluctuates and can be as high as 75 percent, state officials said.

The number of commitments is on the rise. Last year, there were 270 admissions to the center. Through April of 2019, there have been 258.

State officials said they are exploring the best way to address security issues after ending the partnership with Anoka police. Non-sworn reserve officers had provided security at the facility since 1986 when it was an open campus and patients occasionally left the facility and committed crimes, state officials said.

Those reserve officers had been trained to address incidents in a therapeutic way, but police and facility management agreed to end the agreement fearing liability issues if there was ever a serious injury.