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Originally published Friday, May 20, 2011 at 8:27 PM

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Mental patient's racial fear leads to lawsuit

Nine Western State Hospital employees have filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging the state-run mental-health institution violated their civil rights by accommodating a patient's request for white caregivers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Nine Western State Hospital employees have filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging the state-run mental-health institution violated their civil rights by accommodating a patient's request for white caregivers.

The employees say the patient had stated a preference for white attendants and that in response, the hospital made a "decision to accommodate (the patient's) racial preferences" by attempting to assign only white security attendants, according to the lawsuit.

In attempting to placate the patient, the hospital violated the plaintiffs' civil rights and created a workplace that was hostile to its employees, the lawsuit says.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on behalf of eight black, white and Asian-American psychiatric security attendants and their supervisor. The plaintiffs, who are seeking unspecified damages in the suit, work in the hospital's forensic unit.

Named as defendants are the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), the hospital and two hospital administrators.

The DSHS, which oversees the hospital, had not been served with the lawsuit on Friday.

"We have no comment at this time except to emphasize that safety of patients and staff is always our number-one priority," said department spokesman Thomas Shapley.

According to the lawsuit, a white security attendant at Western State Hospital sparked the conflict when he told the violent, mentally ill white patient that people in Africa "eat white people."

The attendant "then chomped his teeth together" to drive home the point. The patient subsequently asked for assistance from only white employees, according to the lawsuit.

The employees' supervisor filed an internal complaint after she was told not to assign black employees to the patient and, on one occasion, was asked to send "the lightest skinned of the three" nonwhites on duty.

According to the lawsuit, hospital executives refused to investigate the complaint and have retaliated.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Joe Schaeffer, said white employees have been subjected to more frequent assignments with the violent and assaultive patient, while employees of other races have been "utterly humiliated" by the hospital's practice.

"It's shocking that in 2011 there would be segregation on the basis of race from any employer, but most surprising coming from the state," Schaeffer said.

The attendant who is alleged to have provoked the patient was temporarily transferred to the kitchen before returning to the forensic ward, according to the suit.

A mental-health expert with the University of Washington, who asked not to be named, said racism is not uncommon among people with mental illness. "There's a lot of racism among the severely mentally ill because the illness tends to peel back the veneer to screen out undesirable impulses," he said.

"If somebody becomes delusional about a particular race, it's not helpful to them to increase their exposure, and it's not at all unheard of to minimize the conflict," he said. "On the other hand, these attendants have a job from hell, and nobody wants to be singled out because of their race."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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