MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
We've been reporting on the upsurge in violence at California's state psychiatric hospitals. Thousands of assaults occur each year. Employees at Napa State Hospital started demonstrating and demanding greater safety after a patient murdered a staffer there last October. And as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, the protests are spreading.
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GROUP (Protesters): Safety now, safety now...
INA JAFFE: About a hundred workers from Metropolitan State Hospital near Los Angeles recently spent a broiling hot lunch hour marching in front of the place where they work as passing trucks honked in support.
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JAFFE: Psychiatrist Laura Dardashti has worked at Metropolitan since 2006. She says when she started, co-workers told her, it's not if you get assaulted, it's when. Her turn came about a year and a half ago.
Dr. LAURA DARDASHTI (Psychiatrist): I was attacked by an extremely psychotic patient who grabbed me by my hair and had me down - in a pretty significant headlock. And it took about four staff to get her off me.
JAFFE: That wasn't the worst part.
Dr. DARADASHTI: And I remember driving to work the next day with a wave of panic coming over me and tears welling up in my eyes, thinking, I don't know how I can do this.
JAFFE: How do you do it?
Dr. DARADASHTI: I think with time you forget, and there's a sense that somehow this is the norm.
JAFFE: Here's what state statistics say about the norm at Metropolitan. Last year, staff members were attacked by patients more than 1300 times. That's nearly double the number of assaults from the year before. Meanwhile, patients assaulted other patients at a rate of almost seven times a day. Rehabilitation therapist Denise Nicks said that staffers' demands for safety began years ago.
Ms. DENISE NICKS (Staffer, Metropolitian State Hospital): And what does the hospital do? They make excuses. They say it's a budget issue. That's not OK. And not only us are affected, but patients are assaulted. The patients being re-victimized.
JAFFE: Metropolitan Hospital's medical director, Dr. Michael Barsom says there's no conflict between management and staff on what should be done.
Dr. MICHAEL BARSOM: I think the conflict as it were, arises from what is feasible to be done. So to hire more staff, to hire more police officers, to implement an alarm system are very expensive items. And we're limited in what we're able to do.
JAFFE: Because, as pretty much everyone knows, California's hard up for cash. The budget that was passed last month made painful cuts to just about everything. But the state psychiatric hospitals got $10 million more than last year. On the one hand, that's amazing, says Dianna Dooley, Secretary of California's of health and human services agency. On the other hand...
Ms. DIANNA DOOLEY (Secretary of California): Ten million dollars isn't enough. One hundred million dollars wouldn't be enough in terms of the advocates of the patients and workers and the need.
JAFFE: But she says, 10 million dollars is enough to begin improving safety. For starters, the hospitals have been exempted from a statewide hiring freeze and are adding staff. A new alarm system is about to be tested and a new department will be created to focus solely on the hospitals.
Ms. DOOLEY: But this problem has existed for a very long time, and we're not going to dig out of this hole as quickly as everyone would like for us to do.
JAFFE: Some State lawmakers are nearly as impatient as hospital workers. They've introduced at least five bills that are designed to make the hospitals safer. Metropolitan state hospital is in the district of assembly member Tony Mendoza and his Chief of staff, Sharon Weissman, had this message for the demonstrators.
Ms. SHARON WEISSMAN (Chief of Staff): Assembly member Mendzoa and I are state workers. And you do not deserve any less safety when you go to work each day than we do.
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JAFFE: Weissman said lawmakers will try and figure out what's causing the upsurge in hospital violence and how to stop it at a hearing next month.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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KELLY: This is NPR News.
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