LAKEWOOD, Wash. -- Fearing for their safety and the safety of patients, two former Western State Hospital nurses are suing the Department of Social and Health Services, pleading for change. They believe a pattern of harassment and retaliation at the mental hospital is so bad it's led to the death of one patient and has left the staff at risk. Those nurses now demand an outside investigation.
From the outside, the campus of Western State Hospital looks peaceful, a haven for those facing the hell of severe mental illness. But Veronica Gabriel and Chris Boyd say in reality, what happens inside is a hostile, frightening place, where chronic under staffing is exacerbated by harassment and retaliation.
Veronica Gabriel: "I was terrified."
Chris Boyd: "Hostile - very hostile."
Both Boyd and Gabriel say Western State fired them last fall for speaking out about harassment and retaliation. Worst of all, both accuse managers of punishing Boyd by leaving him alone with potentially dangerous patients.
"What they did to Chris was abuse, what they did to me was abuse," says Gabriel. "How can they say that they are protecting the patients if they cannot even recognize what is abuse?"
Western's troubled history dates back more than a decade when at least 15 hospital employees sued the state claiming sexual harassment and retaliation. The state paid out millions and was forced to implement sweeping new measures to protect workers. Boyd says, in spite of that, little changed and in 2012 his situation became so desperate he sued for harassment. With Gabriel's history as a naturalized US citizen, and with a son in the Army, she believed it was her duty to testify on Boyd's behalf.
"That's why America is great," she says, "because when you see something is wrong you have the ability to speak up without repercussions, especially if you're a nurse."
In court documents from that 2012 case, Gabriel said she'd witnessed retaliation against Boyd, specifically that he was often left alone on the ward without staff support. In her declaration Gabriel says that's what happened when patient Paul Montefusco was murdered, allegedly at the hands of another patient, Boyd was alone on the ward.
Boyd still cries quietly talking about that day, "like I said their hostility is so bad that it caused me to lose a patient that is also a friend."
Gabriel says that's why they spoke up, "the public needs to know that the management needs to stop using the patients to retaliate." But after Gabriel stood up for Boyd in that 2012 lawsuit, she says hospital supervisors focused on her. She says first the hospital accused her of patient abuse, which the state investigated and ruled unfounded, and later of misusing a state computer. "I was terrified because I know I didn't do anything wrong."
According to legal documents, although most of Gabriel's computer use was related to nursing she also used the internet to look up information on Colin Powell and how to renew her car tabs.
"Over the course of two months of internet use they found that she had renewed her license tabs," says her attorney Joe Shaeffer, "and that ended up being a firing offense."
Attorney Shaeffer is suing the state on Gabriel's behalf and says her firing is simple retaliation for supporting Chris Boyd.
"How can you treat a 19 year veteran of the hospital with such disrespect as to terminate her over such a small offense?"
While the state was investigating Gabriel, a jury ruled in favor of Chris Boyd's lawsuit awarding him $173,000 in the summer of 2013. But after KOMO TV reported on the ruling in July, Boyd says the retaliation got even worse.
"It was really upsetting because I couldn't figure out what, what's going on; why all this hostility all of a sudden?"
No one from Western State or the Department of Social and Health Services will comment because of the pending litigation. But in our July report Hospital CEO Ron Adler told me addressing harassment and retaliation were top priorities.
Adler said, "anything that risks the safety of our patients and our staff are high on the list for me."
Several internal emails from Western State are part of the legal documents obtained by the Problem Solvers. One from Boyd's supervisor mentions seeing the KOMO report about Boyd's legal victory and wrote to Western's Spokesperson saying it, "just made me ill." Boyd's lawsuit states that the very next day that same supervisor e-mailed about Boyd, "I want to get him back to the wards as soon as possible," though he'd been successfully working in another office since the murder of patient Montefusco. And Boyd's therapist advised he should not return to the wards because of, "his fears of another violent incident."
"I never had nobody hate me that much, who want to see me hurt." Boyd reported what he considered new retaliation to human resources and asked for an outside investigation.
November 4th, 2013, five workdays later, Boyd says the Hospital told him not to come back to work but gave him no paperwork explaining why. Even his attorney James Beck couldn't get answers. "This is crazy, it's really crazy." Attorney Beck has filed a new million dollar lawsuit against the state on Boyd's behalf and he's renewing Boyd's request for an outside investigation of Western State. "You have a case about bad investigations, retaliation," says Beck referring to the 2012 lawsuit, "and before the transcript from that trial can even be produced one of the witnesses and the plaintiff are no longer working at the hospital."
Again, DSHS declined all our requests for an interview but e-mailed us this statement Thursday morning. "The Department of Social and Health Services will review the allegations and consult with our colleagues in the Office of Attorney General on how to proceed with these claims. We recognize that state employees have rights under state and federal laws, as well as negotiated union practices, and DSHS is required to follow those laws and contractual obligations to be fair with all of its employees. DSHS is also the State's largest agency with more than 17,000 employees. We are rigorous in efforts to hold employees accountable, while we make the best use of taxpayer money and ensure that quality services are delivered."
When Western State Hospital face the series of lawsuits over harassment and retaliation beginning in 2001 the court appointed a Special Master to oversee required changes at the hospital. Boyd and Gabriel say not enough has changed and that a truly independent investigation is the only way to solve this situation now.