DHSS orders independent investigation into API following unsafe workplace claims

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - “Work shouldn’t hurt,” a message many employees rallying in front of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute Thursday afternoon hope to share with their bosses and the community.

“I’ve never seen a situation like we have at API,” Dr. Susan Ptesapawain White Feather said while discussing how employees are subjected to abuse, “sometimes more than once daily.”

Ptesapawain White Feather has worked at API for the past four years, “We have very little ongoing communication between management and the union and we would really like a positive environment where we’re included since we’re the boots on the ground and the people doing the work.”

The Alaska State Employees Association said staff at API face four times as many assaults against employees as the national average for mental health facilities.

The union shared a copy of a letter with KTUU it claims to have delivered to management at API earlier this week. Items like adequate workers comp, additional hands on training and even addressing the use of surveillance videos are mentioned in the letter. "Cameras alone cannot be the source of disciplinary action against staff. Their intent is for security purposes , not to be used as a weapon against members," the document states.

“We believe they need more permanent staff, who are trained, they're not doing that. We believe that they need to use the workers to assist in designing a plan of safety. It's unsafe for the patients; it's unsafe for our workers who work there,” Mike Robbins, Business Agent with ASEA said.

While employees hope to begin a bigger discussion — across the city, Faith Myers advocates for patients. “I was abused. I was treated very poorly,” Myers said of her own five month stay at API a decade ago.

She says some of the apparent violence within the walls of the facility stems from patient frustration. "There will be mistreatment sometimes that is not publicized by API, mistreatment of patients by staff and traumatization for which they get no treatment,” she said.

It’s unclear what’s next for the facility but the independent investigation is expected to be completed within four months. DHSS said Anchorage attorney, Bill Evans will conduct the investigation under the supervision of Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth.

In a release sent to KTUU Thursday afternoon, DHSS Commissioner Valerie Davidson said "We are working with the Department of Law and Bill Evans to ensure our employees feel safe on the job. I thank the dedicated staff at API who brought these concerns forward. Your voice is critical to ensuring a safe environment for both staff and patients."

The final report will be reviewed by the Attorney General and Commissioner Davidson.

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