News & Events

Making a difference: Ellen Farley stands tall for all nurses

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
May 2010 Edition

By Barbara "Cookie" cooke
Region 3 Community Organizer

From left, Barbara Cooke, Ellen Farley, Donna Kelly-Williams, Karen Coughlin and Bill Fyfe.

For four years Ellen Farley, a registered nurse at Taunton State Hospital, battled for change.

Farley was the victim of an attack by one of the patients at Taunton State Hospital and she was determined to make things different. Taunton State Hospital is a step-down facility for the criminally insane released from Bridgewater State Hospital, as well as for clients sent directly from the courts. These clients have severe psychiatric illnesses and are in need of hospital-levelcare. Farley was attacked by one of the court case clients, an individual who committed numerous violent attacks on others, so she decided to file assault charges against him.

After filing charges, the patient’s behavior temporarily improved. As the case dragged on in court and decisions were postponed again and again, the violent behavior of Farley’s attacker resumed. “I could see that his behavior was purposeful and intentional,” she explained. “Right after I filed the charges, his behavior improved, and this only proved to me that I needed to follow through if he was to ever realize that there were consequences to his assaultive behavior. The drawn-out procedural delays did not work well for either of us. I really wanted something done but wondered if I could make it happen.”

In February, at an unrelated politicalevent, Farley’sTauntonStateco-workersColleenBissonette and Karen Coughlin met Sam Sutter, the Bristol County district attorney. Coughlin, executive vice president of Unit 7 and vice president of the MNA, recalls the meeting as a turning point. “I was frustrated with nothing happening and conveyed my aggravation to the DA. I told him about these violent occurrences—56 episodes in a one-year period perpetrated by this single individual. The DA should have been aware of this situation. I also made him aware of Ellen’s prolonged assault court case and I was insistent that he needed to do something. ”

Sutter and assistant DA Brandon Ferris agreed to a meeting with Farley, Coughlin and Barbara “Cookie” Cooke, Region 3 community organizer. Sutter was thankful to Farley for bringing the situation to light and he made a promise that the approach to this case would change, and that it would be resolved without further delay. Sutter kept his promise. On April 1, Farley again found herself at the Taunton District Court, but this time was different. In addition to the co-workers, friends and MNA staffwhoaccompaniedFarley,Sutterwasthere even though he was not directly handling the case, and the issue was resolved that day.

“I really believed that my attacker would be found mentally ill,” said Farley, “and I explained to anyone who would listen that in the past there had been a difficult-to-manage unit where assaultive clients in need of treatment could go and receive more intensive treatment. Due to budget cuts, that unit was dissolved. Consequently, this client would return to Taunton State Hospital after each court appearance, where he would resume his assaultive behavior.” Farley’s assessment of the case proved to be correct. The judge found the defendant innocent by reason of mental defect, but sent him to Bridgewater State for an evaluation before he could return to Taunton State. “I did feel there was justice with that ruling,” Farley said. “I really want the client to do better and I hope that it works that way. I also want my coworkers to know that we need to send a strong message to clinical staff, administration, police and court officers that violence towards health care workers should not be part of the job.”

Farley would have never found any justice if she hadn’t been so persistent, and also did not have the support of her co-workers throughout the ordeal. But the story also demonstrates the value of political contacts and political activity. It was at a political event that MNA members were able to speak with Sutter personally and effect some change in how the case was being handled. You never know how political activism will help you!

Update: MNA assault bill takes the next step

On April 15, the Massachusetts Senate voted unanimously in favor of S.2383, An Act Relative to Assault and Battery of Health Care Providers, sponsored by Sen. Michael Moore (D-Millbury). This bill would increase the penalties faced by patients, family members or others who assault a nurse or other health care worker while they are providing care. The successful Senate vote followed a unanimous House vote on March 31 in favor of a similar bill.

The MNA is now working to reconcile the two versions of the bill and is looking to have the legislation on the governor’s desk in the coming weeks.

Thank you to all the nurses and health care professionals who lobbied their legislators over the past six months on this important bill and on the issue of violence against health care providers. This campaign has only been successful because of your hard work.