Friday, November 11, 2005

Conducting The Public's Business -- And Dying For It

As the health and safety director for AFSCME, the union that represents public employees, conversations about my job were often met with quizzical looks from people wondering what hazards government workers -- bureaucrats -- face aside from paper cuts or possible computer related ergonomic injuries.

Of course, public employees do all kinds of dangerous work -- on highways, in wastewater treatment plants, putting out fires, chasing bad guys -- and then there's social services.
It was after dark last Friday night, and Marty L. Smith was alone when he knocked on Larry W. Clark's door in Poulsbo.

Smith's job — a crisis responder for the state mental-health system — is inherently dangerous. But Smith had done the work for years, and, according to Poulsbo police, Clark was familiar to the local mental-health agency.

Smith had been summoned by Clark's mother, who told neighbors that her son had schizophrenia and was not taking his medications. Instead of consenting to a hospitalization, Clark attacked Smith with his fists and then a carving knife, according to charging papers, as Clark's mother screamed for help outside.

Smith, 46, died in Clark's dining room. He is the first designated mental-health professional (DMHP) to die on the job in Washington since 1987
In a letter to the Kitsap Sun, John P. Masterson, Chief Executive Officer of Behavioral Health Resources provides a fitting eulogy:
As a CDMHP, Marty responded to mental health crises in Kitsap County 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Marty and his peers throughout the state routinely respond to requests from families, friends, police and others. They go when and where they are needed, often alone, responding to the call for help.

They go without weapons, armed only with their knowledge, their skills, and their commitment to care for very ill people.

They go wanting to help, knowing they are the only ones authorized by law to require gravely mentally ill persons to be hospitalized against their will, if it is necessary.

Above all, they are vital to the health and safety of the individual and to our communities.

Marty's willingness to provide this service is a testament to his compassion.
The Seattle Post Intelligencer notes that the attack on Smith was no fluke -- and there are things that can be done to prevent such tragedies:

Earlier this year, Child Protective Services worker Edith Vance was attacked with a machete and a two-by-four during a child welfare check at a residence in Ferry County. Her attacker, 35-year-old Bryan Russell, who had been convicted of assault and drug possession, was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy who had accompanied Vance and a coworker.

In 2002, Roger Erdman, a field inspector with the state Department of Licensing, was murdered by trucker Ralph Benson near Davenport.

The solution, of course, is not to arm all government workers but to devote necessary resources to guard their safety. Any potentially risky visits should be accompanied by a uniformed police officer or, at the very least, carried out in teams of two or more workers.