Kafkaesque nightmare at county mental health facility
February 16, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
San Luis Obispo County’s claim that it is not responsible for the brutal attacks of women at its mental health facility on Johnson Avenue was thrown out by a judge on Feb. 8.
Superior Court Judge Dodie Harman ruled against the county’s request that the suit does not have merit under the county’s claim it is not responsible if patients assault each other.
“This is the first time this type of case has gone this far,” attorney Jim McKiernan said “I think any law suit like this will cause public entities to rethink their responsibility for patients in their care, and that’s the way it should be otherwise it is totally Kafkaesque.”
More than two years ago, a man with a long history of criminal assaults violently attacked a patient at San Luis Obispo County’s Mental Health inpatient facility. Valerie Lane suffered a gash to her head that required staples, an injured finger that still does not bend, bruised lungs, and a battered and cut face with eyes swollen shut.
Today, she is losing vision because of damage to the retina in her right eye.
She made requests to the county for financial compensation, all of which were denied. Lane said she was turned away by numerous attorneys who did not want to battle the county, then James McKiernan agreed to file a lawsuit.
In an attempt to have a judge toss the case before it had a chance to go to trial, the county filed a demurrer claiming that the county mental health facility on Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo is not a county psychiatric hospital and as such is not required to follow certain laws and regulations in place to protect patients. A claim that has been successful at protecting government run mental health facilities throughout the state from having to take responsibility for patient safety.
“In a nutshell, the County’s only psychiatric hospital argues that it is not a county psychiatric hospital . . . required to follow certain statutes and regulations for patient safety,” McKiernan said in his opposition. “That’s crazy.”
Judge Harmon overruled the county’s claim that it is not responsible and order county officials to respond to McKiernan’s complaint within 20 days.
Lane, 52, had been suffering from severe migraines and depression and called her therapist who told her to check herself into the mental health facility to protect herself.
On Sept. 4, 2009, Lane was spending her second day at mental health when she asked if she could smoke a cigarette. A staff member took her outside to a metal enclosure that consists of chain link walls and ceiling. The staff member lit Lane’s cigarette and left.
Lane sat on a bench weeping because of a severe migraine. A facility staffer brought in William Shirreffs, lit his cigarette and left.
Unlike Lane, Shirreffs, 59, had been involuntarily placed into SLO County Mental Health by law enforcement officers and was known at the time to have an extensive history of criminal convictions for violence, assaulting a police officer, drugs, molestation of children, indecent exposure and theft, according to his criminal case information from Kern County Superior Court.
After a few minutes of silence, Shirreffs put out his cigarette and began to punch Lane and after about a half minute, he stopped and stepped away.
A few minutes later, staff found Lane with blood running down her face. Her white T-shirt was splotched with the blood.
“I do not want this to happen to someone else,” Lane said. “Obviously, going public with my attack didn’t change anything.”
In November, a registered sex offender high on cocaine held a mentally ill woman hostage and sexually assaulted her at the county mental health inpatient facility.
Ambrose Wesley walked into the patient’s room, held his hand over her mouth and face leaving behind abrasions, and then sexually assaulted the woman for about five minutes before mental health staffers noticed.
“I know what she is going through,” Lane said weeping. “Changes need to be made. I still have night mares and it has been two years.”
Several county employees said Wesley should have been placed in jail which also has mental health services rather than county mental health because police had determined the man was high on cocaine.
“I think this is a form of abuse mixing violent criminals with defenseless woman,” McKiernan said. “Harman’s ruling paves the way for us to proceed on the other horrendous and tragic case (the November sexual assault).”