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Western Psych told to adopt policy on fleeing patients

Saturday, November 17, 2001

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic should adopt a clear policy on whether to chase committed patients who escape from the hospital's emergency room, the Allegheny County coroner recommended yesterday.

And rather than ask guards to lock the ER entrance whenever they are called away, hospital policy should dictate that guards never leave their posts, the coroner said.

The conclusions came yesterday after Dr. Cyril H. Wecht examined evidence from an open inquest into the June death of Kimberly G. Jones, who died after escaping from the hospital. While the testimony pointed to problems the hospital must solve, Wecht said there was no basis for pursuing criminal charges in the matter.

Jones, 45, of the North Side, had been taken to the hospital's emergency room the morning of June 9 and was being committed to the facility later that day when she escaped through an emergency room door that was unlocked.

Jones left the hospital and ran across O'Hara Street into Benedum Hall, where she was confronted by hospital workers. She fled the building and ran across a patio area, ultimately mounting a planter that concealed a 30-foot drop on its far side.

The coroner's office initially called the death a suicide. But Shawn Flaherty, the attorney who presided over the inquest, recommended that Wecht instead rule that the death was accidental, which he did.

In his written report on the inquest, Flaherty said security guards shouldn't leave their posts when committed patients are in the waiting room because psychotic individuals will and can go to great lengths to protect themselves from perceived hostile situations.

As for chasing patients, the hospital apparently has incongruous policies, Flaherty said. On the one hand, security guards have been trained not to pursue a patient beyond the actual physical bounds of the property. But the remainder of the employees have no idea of any policy.

The hospital must adopt one of two policies, Flaherty said. If employees are instructed not to go beyond the boundaries of the property, policies must be put in place to alert the Pittsburgh police as well as the University of Pittsburgh police, he wrote.

If the hospital adopts a policy that security personnel and staff have the ability to go beyond the confines of the hospital property, then training must be given in how to pursue and apprehend a patient.

In either case, the policy must be explained to employees, Flaherty said.

Robert G. Del Greco, Jr., attorney for Western Psych, said the hospital would convene a committee to review the coroner's recommendations. But Del Greco was pessimistic about how the hospital might draft a policy on how to handle fleeing patients. In the 1980s, a patient who had been committed to the hospital escaped and ultimately hanged himself. In that case, the hospital was criticized for not giving chase, Del Greco said.

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