State keeps outings on hold after mental patient's escape
Field trips from Washington's two state mental hospitals will remain suspended indefinitely after a criminally insane killer walked away during a visit to a county fair in Spokane last month, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) said Friday.
The Associated Press
SPOKANE — Field trips from Washington's two state mental hospitals will remain suspended indefinitely after a criminally insane killer walked away during a visit to a county fair in Spokane last month, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) said Friday.
Agency Secretary Susan Dreyfus said the state will continue investigating why Eastern State Hospital staff failed to call 911 for some 90 minutes after Phillip Arnold Paul disappeared during the outing to the Spokane County Interstate Fair. The state is also studying why Paul was allowed to go on the Sept. 17 trip after he had been deemed a danger to the public by a judge earlier in September.
Any discipline of staffers would follow those reviews, Dreyfus said.
Paul, 47, was committed in 1987 for the slaying of a woman in Sunnyside, Yakima County. He was recaptured without incident near Goldendale, Klickitat County, three days after escaping.
"That breach raises serious community-safety concerns," Dreyfus said, in releasing the findings of an initial DSHS review of the incident.
Eastern patients have taken outings into the community for years, and hospital officials say the trips can be a useful tool in treatment. But Dreyfus also said she would create a panel of experts, chaired by Dr. Richard Veith of the University of Washington, to look into the department's field-trip policy.
Until then, all group field trips involving the 1,072 patients from Eastern State and Western State Hospital, near Tacoma, will remain suspended, she said.
State officials are particularly concerned about a 90-minute gap between the time hospital staff members noticed Paul was missing and the first call to law-enforcement officers. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said officers would have swarmed the fairgrounds area if called immediately and might have caught Paul right away.
According to the review by DSHS, planning for the annual outing to the fair began on May 26, and Paul was first approved for the trip on Sept. 9. The 31 patients on the trip were all from the so-called forensic unit, meaning they were patients committed to the hospital as a result of a criminal act.
There was no indication to staff that anything was out of the ordinary when the patients and 11 staff members boarded a bus and van and arrived at the fair at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 17, the report said.
Delayed 911 call
Paul's escort, who was not identified in the report, noticed him missing sometime between 11:40 and 11:45 a.m., and at first thought he might be in a restroom. Staff members at the outing conferred among themselves, in violation of a policy that required them to call 911 immediately if a patient went missing.
At 12:09 p.m., escort staff called workers at Eastern State to report Paul missing. Escort staff asked twice if they should call 911, and asked if they needed to return to the hospital.
They were told a person at the hospital would call 911 and that they should stay at the fair, which was another breach of procedure, DSHS said.
There was a flurry of conversations among staff at the hospital. Finally, the State Patrol was called at 1:10 p.m. and the Spokane County Sheriff's Office at 1:15 p.m., the report said. It took more time to get a description and other identifying information about Paul.
The rest of the patients at the fair were put back on the bus about 1:45 p.m., the report said.
In all, a dozen staff members had a chance to call 911 but none did, said Richard Kellogg, head of the DSHS Division of Mental Health.
Kellogg said the initial review indicates the agency needs to make major changes in how it evaluates patients for outings and in its training on informing law enforcement of escapes.
Dreyfus wants the new safety-review panel to recommend ways to ensure patient, staff and community safety while providing appropriate therapy for patients. She expected the panel's report by Dec. 1.
"Although public safety must be our first concern, it is important that we not let this unfortunate incident frame how we, as a state, see people who live with mental illness," Dreyfus said. "Mental illness touches all of us, and people can indeed recover and lead successful lives."
Paul's escape led to harsh criticism of such field trips and prompted Eastern State's chief executive officer, Harold Wilson, to resign.
Escapes from the state mental hospitals by people committed for crimes are extremely rare, according to DSHS.
Since 1999, there have been four escapes from Eastern State and only one escape from Western State, the agency said.
"Threat to public safety"
Paul's escape was apparently triggered when his request to move from the mental hospital to a residential facility in downtown Spokane was rejected. A judge found in early September that Paul represented "a threat to public safety."
Paul had previously won conditional release twice, fathering a child during one of his releases. His latest release occurred in 2005 and ended in January after his mental condition reportedly deteriorated.
Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he was committed for the 1987 slaying of 78-year-old Ruth Mottley in Sunnyside. Paul said voices in his head told him Mottley was a witch who was casting spells on him.
In a telephone interview with KXLY-TV of Spokane, Paul said his escape was an impulsive act.
"I guess I want freedom, and it eats at me so bad sometimes," he told the station.
Because Paul was found not guilty by reason of insanity, he is not serving a criminal sentence. He can be released whenever a judge deems him mentally healthy.
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