Protecting Oregon’s mental health workers like Jennifer Warren – those angels unaware

Editorial column by Steve Duin, published in The Oregonian, May 24, 2012

In the brave new world of mental health, the Jennifer Warrens of the world confront many of the same people and phobias that confound your local police bureau.

Yet they do so without the sidearm.

Without the Kevlar vest.

Without partners or essential backup.

And without the grand jury’s permission to unholster their trusty taser the moment they feel threatened.

In the last of 10 editorials that rebuilt the Oregon State Hospital, refocused the Legislature and won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, The Oregonian’s Rick Attig and Doug Bates argued, “Oregon has started down the long road to a better, more compassionate system of mental health care.”

Individualized care — rather than warehousing the mentally ill in 19th-century squalor — is a feature of that empathetic journey. But that care, Warren’s death reminds us, is often provided by an isolated caseworker or medication tech at a small community organization who is in no position to ask for help.

Warren, 39, was stabbed to death Sunday when she delivered medication to the St. Helens apartment of Brent K. Redd Jr.

Redd was committed to the state hospital in 2007 after attempting to strangle his mother, and released by the Psychiatric Security Review Board in 2010.

Warren understood personal trauma — she survived methamphetamine addiction and losing three sons to adoption — and was drawn to assist those who were dealing with it. She probably had no idea of the potential danger she faced on her Sunday morning rounds for Columbia County Mental Health.

“When you’re in the trenches of mental health staffing, you assume the people paid to assess risk know what they’re doing,” said Lynn Davenport, even though the licensed professionals “rarely smell the clients.”

Davenport made hundreds of unaccompanied visits to clients in the corrections, mental health and child-welfare system during the course of 20 years. The most devoted caregivers, she noted, are the least likely to complain about the bite marks and the death threats.

“If I talk about the trouble I’m having, it means that I’m not good at my job,” Davenport said. “As opposed to I’ve been given an impossible job. That means you’ll work crazy shifts and hours, you’re sick and tired, when people are acting up. You won’t complain or raise concerns when you feel unsafe.”

Corina Fesler, who worked with Warren, quit Columbia Community Mental Health immediately after Warren’s death, telling The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein: “There’s been concerns all along that we go out and do this by ourselves. It just makes me sick, because it didn’t have to happen this way. If someone else could have been there, at least (Warren) would have had backup.”

In the brave new world of mental health, there are rarely partners or panic buttons. And too many Jennifer Warrens venture into the lion’s den, trusting that good intentions are all the body armor they need.

I don’t know that we can stop them. They are the best of Samaritans. Forgetting prisoners or neglecting strangers isn’t in them.

And that’s precisely why we need to work so much harder to protect them.

READ – Jennifer Warren’s obituary.