November 1st, 2017

Union wants metal detectors at Department of Mental Health sites

Representatives of workers at inpatient mental health facilities around Massachusetts fear that it’s inevitable people will be seriously injured or killed if action is not taken to ensure their safety.

They’ve taken their concerns to the governor’s office.

Earlier this year, officials from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) hand-delivered a petition signed by 1,100 workers seeking the installation of metal detectors at seven locations.

James Durkin, director of legislation for AFSCME Council 93 said that although metal detectors would not solve the security issues completely, the “simple first step,” would “drastically reduce the possibility,” of staff members, patients and visitors getting hurt or worse.

Durkin said that the union has been trying to get metal detectors for several years and the matter has been brought up to Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, her chief of staff, Leslie Darcy and Mental Health Commissioner Joan Mikula.

Other than statements released promising to look into measures to “create and maintain a safe work and hospital treatment environment,” the union representative is disappointed that nothing is being done and the months are dragging on.

“We will continue to push the administration and hold out hope that steps will be taken to prevent a tragedy. It is only a matter of time,” Durkin said.

Joanne Cooke, president of AFSCME Local 72, said that a patient used a pen to stab two workers at Taunton State Hospital earlier this year.

She has photos of weapons found on campuses including box cutters, knives, switchblades, a saw and “every weapon imaginable,” adding, “It’s horrible. A lot were found in the hospital inside the gates. Our goal is to stop these things from passing through. This (detector) is as much for the safety of patients and visitors as it is for staff. People are scared.”

She has also documented the wounds suffered by the staff members as a result of the stabbings.

“It is a very dangerous situation as we have very ill patients,” at the facilities, Cooke noted.

In addition to Taunton State Hospital, the petition seeks detectors at Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, Corrigan Mental Health Center in Fall River, Cape Cod and Islands Community Mental Health Center in Pocasset, Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston, Tewksbury Hospital and Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston.

Cooke and Durkin said that the idea of metal detectors has been shot down in the past based on “image concerns,” and the argument that it would make the inpatient hospitals “look too much like prisons.”

Metal detectors are common at government buildings, airports and even schools but rare in health care settings, Durkin said. He pointed out, however, that the facility in Worcester has a 20-foot barbed wire fence surrounding it, making the image claim “illogical.”

Some of the facilities use hand held wands as security tools, a measure the union leaders find insufficient.

Wands, Durkin said, are “secondary tools,” while Cooke added that the metal detector alarm would trigger the approximate location and the wand would isolate the object. The wand would need to be pressed right against a pocket to detect keys, for example.

The two campus police at Taunton have to be responsible for everyone and Cooke feels that is an “impossible” task.

Cooke said “It seems like our (request) has fallen on deaf ears. No one is listening.”

Durkin added that a survey of 1,445 staff members ranked metal detectors in the top three measures they felt would make them safer.

When reached by New England Psychologist, DMH Director of Communications and Community Outreach Daniela Trammell said that safety is a priority for the department.

In an email, she said the department is working “to understand the needs and research best practices,” has consulted with outside safety personnel and other facilities to learn their policies and practices and has looked into costs for detectors and analyzed associated costs.

Trammell did not provide any specifics as to a timetable or a plan of action in response to the petition.

By Susan Gonsalves

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