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Seattle Children’s nurses pen letter about low staffing levels, violence

FILE - A sign stands outside Seattle Children's Hospital on March 18, 2020, in Seattle. Children's hospitals in parts of the country are seeing a distressing surge in RSV, a common respiratory illness that can cause severe breathing problems for babies. Cases fell dramatically two years ago as the pandemic shut down schools, day cares and businesses. Then, with restrictions easing, the summer of 2021 brought an alarming increase in what is normally a wintertime virus.
Elaine Thompson
A sign stands outside Seattle Children's Hospital on March 18, 2020, in Seattle.

Nurses at Seattle Children's Hospital are demanding hospital officials provide safety measures and increase staffing to deal with patients they said are becoming increasingly violent in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit.

The Washington State Nurses Association penned a letter to hospital management Nov. 17, outlining at least 16 instances since September when staff were assaulted or threatened. Forty-four nurses signed on to the letter that said staff experience violence and debilitating abuse, and that patient care has been compromised and is no longer therapeutic.

In a statement to KNKX, Children's Hospital said the safety and security of its workers and patients are top priorities and that it's been working over the past several months to address demand for youth mental and behavioral health treatment.

According to the statement, the hospital has brought in additional staffing and security, and is actively seeking to hire traveling nurses. It also established an emergency operations center to more quickly address safety concerns when they happen.

Greg Zorn, a charge nurse at the hospital, signed the letter to Children's management.

"Which is great. I like having security. But we needed that like a month ago," Zorn said.

He said the hospital is being reactive and doesn't pay enough.

"I just want to say that all of us nurses are not just trying to make more money or trying to be disruptive," Zorn said. "We are trying to work as a team."

Among their demands, the nurses are asking to be assigned no more than eight patients. The nurses said better pay would help retain nurses, stabilize staffing levels and improve care for their patients.

Jeff Kljaich, another charge nurse at the hospital, said he's had up to 13 patients under his care during a shift. That changes depending on staffing.

He said nurses are also forced to treat kids for longer periods of time.

"This is untenable," Kljaich said. "We're meant to basically stabilize a kid through their behavioral crises or psychiatric crisis in seven (days)... maybe two weeks max. But I think our length of stay right now is 45 to 50 days. We're not set up for this."

Kljaich said over the last several years mental health treatment resources in the state for kids has become scarce, leaving parents with few options.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found a higher percentage of high school students across the country experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021 compared to 2011. The report also showed a higher percentage of students during that time frame either attempted, made a plan or seriously considered attempting suicide.

In its statement, the hospital said the steps it has taken support the safety of its patients and workers, but it can't solve the crisis alone.

"This work is ongoing, and we are actively collaborating with external partners at the local, state, and federal level to identify and eliminate barriers and find rapid solutions to address the extremely high number of patients seeking care for mental and behavioral health crises across the state," the hospital's statement said.

"Greater investment in youth mental health is critical to build a pediatric mental health system that encompasses upstream prevention to the highest acuity and complexity to meet the needs of Washington’s youth.”

The nurses are scheduled to meet with hospital officials on Dec. 13.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 9-8-8 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Updated: December 1, 2023 at 5:20 PM PST
Removed mention of spokesperson
Corrected: December 1, 2023 at 4:58 PM PST
Spelling of Greg Zorn's last name.
Freddy Monares has covered politics, housing inequalities and Native American communities for a newspaper and a public radio station in Montana. He grew up in East Los Angeles, California, and moved to Missoula, Montana, in 2015 with the goal of growing in his career.