Alarming number of assaults at Arizona State Hospital, lawmakers looking for change

A former employee at the Arizona State Hospital assaulted on the job is calling for change as we see what it’s like inside the hospital walls.
Published: Apr. 24, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: Apr. 24, 2023 at 9:19 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - A former employee at the Arizona State Hospital assaulted while on the job is calling for change as we see what it’s like inside the hospital walls for the first time. Arizona’s Family investigates, uncovering a staggering number of assaults last year alone. These cases involve not only patients but employees as well.

Over the past two years, Arizona’s Family has told you about incidents like suicides and assaults at the state hospital. The numbers are alarming, and some say the problem is that the state agency operating the hospital is also in charge of regulation and oversight.

The Arizona State Hospital, or “ASH,” is home to some of the sickest patients in the state’s mental health system. But time and time again, it’s proven to be dangerous. For the first time, we are getting a better idea of what’s happening inside these hospital walls. “No one goes to work and expects to be permanently disabled,” the former employee said. “I will not work there because it is not a safe environment and I will not be hurt like that again.”

Arizona’s Family Investigates obtained security video of a patient attacking a staff member inside the hospital. A patient walks toward the employee, lunges at them, and throws a punch as they fall to the ground. “I was very caught off guard by what happened.” The former employee was rushed to the hospital, and ER doctors admitted them for a CT scan, revealing fractures and a broken finger that required surgery to fix. “It is still traumatizing to this day.”

This is just one of the hundreds of incidents happening at the hospital. Annual reports from the last six years reveal there have been more than 500 assaults each year. ASH defines assaults as “unwanted touching or other physical contact.”

Last year, that number spiked to 841 assaults. That’s more than two a day. Beyond assaults, in 2019, there was a homicide at the hospital where a patient brutally beat another patient in the hallway, killing him. In November 2021, two patient suicides in the hospital within one month. And in 2022, patients barricaded staff and tried to use medical equipment as weapons toward them. “What is it going to take for change?”

Attorney Holly Gieszl, who represents patients and staff at the hospital, says those incidents have not shown up in public inspection reports. “None of these have been written up in the form of any sort of disciplinary action or corrective action or consequences for the leadership of the hospital or the involved employees,” she said. “It’s been an unusually violent facility and that has been consistent over a number of years.”

So how is this possible, and why does this keep happening? The hospital falls under the Arizona Department of Health Services. This means the same agency runs and regulates the hospital at 24th Street and Van Buren, with 260 beds.

Some say there is a lack of oversight and independence. In a statement, Arizona DHS says they cannot comment directly on those cases but says, “When a reportable incident occurs, the Arizona State Hospital (”ASH”) will notify the appropriate agencies (e.g. Adult Protective Services, AHCCCS, the Joint Commision, etc.) and the Department’s Bureau of Medical Facilities Licensing (BMFL) may make an unannounced visit to investigate the matter and review the hospital’s adherence to rules, regulations, standards, and policies.”

Now state lawmakers are getting involved. State Senator David Gowan, a Republican representing the southeast Valley, is behind legislation that would create a five-person, independent board to oversee the hospital and remove it from DHS control. “When you find out it’s the department of health services licensing the staff and leadership and so on and so on, it just doesn’t seem right,” Gowan said. “We’re continually going to be able to know and get the knowledge we need to see what’s happening there and fix this place up, make sure it’s running smoothly.”

That measure now heads to Arizona House lawmakers. The former employee believes it’s the only way to keep patients and staff safe. “I think it’s ok to say hey let’s fix this, something isn’t right. These are human beings. They deserve better.”

Multiple employees tell Arizona’s Family Investigates they feel some of those incidents, like the suicides, could have been prevented if the state hospital had better staffing. DHS tells us they have 100 openings and are actively recruiting.