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Union says assaults on workers frequent at state psych hospital

Social worker Chris Yelen spoke about his experiences working inside the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center. Credit: Rachel Baye

Social worker Chris Yelen said he has already been assaulted twice on the job working in a maximum security unit over the past year inside the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, a state psychiatric facility in Jessup.

The most recent attack happened on May 5, as Yelen was leaving a conference room with a patient.

“Another patient just came up to me and started punching me in the face, in the neck, in the back, in the shoulders — punched me I don’t even know how many times,” Yelen recalled. “A patient had to get him off of me. There was no security presence that was there to get that patient off of me.”

Almost six weeks later, Yelen is not yet able to return to work, pending medical clearance. Even so, he is not sure he will ever want to go back.

“There's times when I felt like I should be safe … working [in] a maximum security facility, but haven't felt safe and haven't been safe and have had these things occur,” he said. “That's the part that scares me.”

The Maryland branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents Yelen and other Perkins workers, says assaults on both patients and staff there have become routine due to understaffing of security attendants.

State law requires the hospital to maintain a ratio of one security attendant for every three patients.

During a press conference organized by AFSCME Wednesday afternoon, security attendant Tebon Williams said the hospital’s maximum security wards typically have two security officers and about 28 or 29 patients — a ratio of roughly one security attendant for every 14 or 15 patients.

He said sometimes security staff are called in from other hospitals, but they are almost always understaffed.

“Some wards work short to cover the max side. Sometimes the max side is short because staff is tired, so we get call outs. So people are working [16 hour days], getting mandated three days in a row, having to volunteer because you don't want to get mandated,” he said. “We doing the best that we can here, but the ratio is still — we’re still outnumbered.”

Atif Chaudhry, deputy secretary for operations for the Maryland Department of Health, disputed this account.

“MDH meets the 1:3 staffing ratio as required by law for security attendants at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “As of 6/15, MDH has a staff of 97 security attendants for a facility that has a maximum capacity of 289 patients.”

He said the department does not comment on specific incidents.

Union officials countered that the state ratio is misleading and would require all workers to report for 24 hour shifts.

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