Two years after a social worker was killed in a Revere group home for the mentally ill, the company that operates the home has promised federal regulators it will adopt new worker safety policies, including alerting staff of patients who exhibit dangerous behavior.
As part of the settlement with the Department of Labor, North Suffolk Mental Health Association Inc., one of the largest mental health providers in the state, must implement a written violence prevention program, which will include a system for reporting and investigating violent cases.
The measures are designed to prevent other social workers from meeting the fate of Stephanie Moulton. The 25-year-old was beaten and stabbed to death in January 2011, allegedly at the hands of Deshawn James Chappell, a schizophrenic with a history of criminal violence who was off his medication. The social worker and the patient had been left alone in the Revere home where Chappell lived.
“Workers must have the tools and resources to protect themselves, which is what this settlement addresses,” said Ted Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Department of Labor. “This resolution cannot bring back the life that was taken, but we can hopefully prevent death or injury from occurring again at North Suffolk.”
The company must also, in all of its facilities, create a way to account for staff who end their shifts away from North Suffolk work sites, allow workers to request support in situations in which they feel unsafe, and provide staff with electronic alarms, cellphones, or walkie-talkies when they are alone with patients.
North Suffolk has agreed to update the Occupational Safety and Health Administration when it has fulfilled the terms of the agreement. The company will also pay a $7,000 fine, the maximum allowed for a serious violation in workplace safety.
OSHA cited North Suffolk in July 2011 for leaving workers vulnerable to physical assault, just a few months after the aspiring nursing student was killed.
Days before the killing, court records indicate that Chappell’s family alerted the group home that he was not taking his prescribed medications. On Jan. 20, 2011, Moulton, who knew none of Chappell’s history, was working a day shift in the home, alone. Prosecutors say Chappell stabbed her several times in the neck inside the residence before dragging her to her car and driving her body to a parking lot in Lynn and dumping it there.
Chappell has pleaded not guilty, and a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney said the case is still pending.
The day after Moulton’s death, OSHA opened an inspection on the site, finding ultimately that the facility had violated the agency’s “general duty” clause, which says that a workplace is obligated to rid itself of recognized threats to worker safety. According to the citation, a serious violation occurs “when there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.”
North Suffolk contested the OSHA citation and has not accepted blame for Moulton’s death but accepted the terms of the agreement with the Department of Labor. Company representatives could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Kimberly Flynn, 49, Moulton’s mother, said she appreciated the effort made by the Department of Labor to improve worker safety. “But I really wish more had been done,” she said.
Jason A. Stephany — a spokesman for the Massachusetts Human Service Workers Union, a third party to the settlement — said the agreement was a good first step, but not enough to protect mental health staff from potential harm. Stephany said the settlement does not address state or federal funding to increase staffing levels at mental health facilities, which he said is the most pressing threat to safety.
“In 2011, Ms. Moulton was alone when she was attacked,” he said. “If she had not been alone, perhaps this tragedy could have been prevented. The settlement is a way forward, but, at the end of the day, funding to address staffing levels remains a missing piece of the puzzle.”
“It’s a terrible shame a death had to occur to bring about this kind of reform,” he said.
Nikita Lalwani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.