The escape — and eventual capture — of two patients last week from Western State Hospital near Tacoma further demonstrates vast problems with Washington’s mental health system. These problems endanger the public, endanger employees and poorly serve patients at the state’s largest psychiatric facility, and highlight failures that have lingered for years.
Most recently, a pair of patients escaped after reportedly loosening window bolts over months. One of them, Anthony Garver, has been accused of a 2013 torture killing in which he tied a woman to a bed with electrical cords, stabbed her 24 times and slashed her throat. He has been deemed incompetent to face first-degree murder charges and was recaptured near his family home after taking a bus to Spokane.
The details of Garver’s crime and the thought that he was briefly free should be enough to raise the hackles of residents. And yet those facts are merely the latest to shine a spotlight on the state’s failed management of Western State Hospital.
Washington’s mental health care system has been taken to task by the state Supreme Court, which ruled the practice of keeping psychiatric patients in hospital emergency rooms to be unconstitutional; it has been scrutinized by federal authorities, who have threatened to pull funding over safety concerns at Western State; it has been chastised by a U.S. District Court judge; and it has been the target of criticism from mental health advocates and family members of patients.
In providing for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents — while also protecting the public from those residents — Western State Hospital has racked up a lengthy list of problems that call for vast changes in its administration and its practices. The Legislature has made attempts to address these shortcomings by adding $137 million in funding in the past three years after years of cutbacks. And this year, lawmakers established a special committee to delve into the facility’s problems and devise solutions.
The special committee could be an important tool for the state, provided that it is not overly politicized. Lawmakers must focus upon the problems rather than engaging in finger-pointing, despite the temptations provided by election-year politics.
Given the fact that shortcomings at Western State have spanned multiple governors and multiple leaders of the state Department of Social and Health Services, it would be inaccurate and unfair to place the entirety of the blame at the foot of Gov. Jay Inslee. But when Inslee said that the recent escape “raises serious questions once again about the management and operation of this troubled hospital,” he was providing commentary on a matter of public safety that calls for action rather than rhetoric.
Despite ongoing scrutiny from federal regulators, a workplace inspection released last week detailed safety risks such as unlocked rooms and unattended items that could be used as weapons.
At the same time, it would be inaccurate to absolve Inslee’s administration when oversight clearly has been lax. Combined with a Department of Corrections computer glitch that was allowed to linger and resulted in the early release of 3,000 inmates, the ongoing problems with psychiatric care point to poor management of various state departments.
It is fortunate that the escape of two patients considered dangerous did not result in further tragedy. But that should not mitigate what is a glaring need for changes at Western State Hospital.