Viewpoint

Don’t blame workers for psych center woes

An investigation revealed shocking conditions inside Strategic Behavioral Center in Charlotte.
An investigation revealed shocking conditions inside Strategic Behavioral Center in Charlotte. Charlotte Observer

Stripping naked is just one way my teenage son, Devon, thwarts workers at psych centers. Afraid of sexual misconduct allegations, they’re unlikely to physically restrain him despite the mayhem he causes. This trick has worked for Devon (an alias to protect his privacy) at multiple psych centers in Charlotte and throughout the state including at the Strategic facility in Garner.

The recent investigation into the Strategic facility in South Charlotte paints a picture of workers, afraid for their lives, standing by watching a riot unfold without trying to control the situation. While the workers’ actions are shocking to many, as the parent of a child who has been a resident of five different psysh centers, I understand why and really don’t blame the workers.

Many assume the workers in these facilities are highly trained, well-paid professionals, but that’s simply not the case. These entry-level positions require only a high school diploma or GED – a good thing since there’s no hope of paying off student loans making $10 to $12 an hour. With a quick internet job search a worker will find they can make the same wage employed at a store as a clerk, cashier, or in any number of easier, less risky jobs. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Strategic and other psych centers are chronically short-staffed.

I don’t know about you, but I’d run to Human Resources if I was assaulted, cursed at, and urinated on while at work. But that’s just a day in the life of workers at psych centers. My son regularly punches and kicks workers. He’s even thrown his feces at them. Yet, staff say they’re “not allowed” to file charges against residents, often teenagers, who assault them. Safe from criminal charges, kids like my son taunt them: I can hurt you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Keri Williams
Keri Williams

Workers often spend multiple hours in lockdown with belligerent, violent patients – unlike licensed clinicians who safely “supervise” from their offices – something that would try the patience of a saint. Sure, the policy is to rotate workers, but with staff shortages, that rarely happens. I applaud Strategic’s new official policy that CMPD be called if a patient situation cannot be handled on site. I only hope staff won’t be actively discouraged from doing so behind the scenes.

My son has been abused in psych facilities but has also made his share of false allegations against workers. It’s a parent’s nightmare – trying to determine if your child is being mistreated and yet unable to trust your child’s account of events. But, it’s also a nightmare for workers. My son regularly tries to control them by threatening, “I’m gonna get you fired,” knowing it’s entirely possible for him to do just that. There are surveillance cameras; however, workers are routinely placed on unpaid administrative leave while an investigation is conducted no matter how clearly the footage shows what actually happened. Missing a week or two of work could mean not paying rent and daycare. Given the potential consequences, I understand why workers may be tempted to placate their patients and steer clear of all confrontation, fearful that even the most outrageous of allegations will be entertained.

Aren’t we asking a bit too much of these hourly, entry-level employees? Any meaningful reform of the broken mental health system has to include improving conditions for these workers. Psych facilities will be safe for our kids only if the workers are qualified, well-trained and fairly compensated.

Learning how the Strategic workers watched the riot unfold without intervening, I imagined myself in their shoes. Instead of calling for them all to be fired, I encourage you to do the same. You’re exhausted, burned out, underpaid, afraid you’ll be accused of abuse or excessive force, told not to call the cops, and have no meaningful way to control the situation. What would you do?

Williams lives with her family in Charlotte and is working on a memoir about raising her adopted son. She blogs at www.raisingdevon.com

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