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Unions protest safety gap at Anoka center

In the wake of a violent attack on a nurse at Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, nurses and support workers stage informational pickets for security upgrade.

ANOKA, Minn. — Nurses, social workers and other staff at Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center say they no longer feel safe there.

To drive home the point members of several unions walked the picket line Wednesday as car drove past on 7th Avenue honking in support.

"That’s part of informational picketing, to let the community know that the nurses and the staff inside can’t do their job with the way things are," Carrie Mortrud of the Minnesota Nurses Association told KARE.

"Nurses don’t like to ever worry anyone or scare anyone, so if they’re saying it’s unsafe inside, we better listen."

The nurses walked in their traditional red MNA tee shirts alongside members of the MAPE government employees union in blue tees and AFSCME government workers union in their green shirts. At times during the six hours of picketing members of other unions joined them in support.

"The concern is mostly for safety not only of our staff, but the safety of our patients and the safety of visitors that come into our hospital," Jennell Pettit, a MAPE member who works at the treatment center, told KARE.

Ongoing security concerns came to a head May 9 when a female nurse was attacked by a patient. According to the criminal complaint, Andrew Taggart, punched and nurse and knocked her unconscious, then kept punching her after she fell to the floor.

Investigators say Taggart attacked the nurse when she denied his request for Tylenol, suggesting he try a cold pack first. The nurse was hospitalized for several days and is still recovering, according to friends.

Union members shared data, showing the numbers of on-the-job injuries that fall into the category of "Aggressive Behavior Related" are on a pace to easily surpass 2018.

"We’re set up to deal with people with mental illness that need help, and especially need medication management," Pettit remarked.

"We weren’t set up for treatment of criminals."

She said the center has been taking on more patients who are deemed too ill to remain incarcerated in county jails, but not dangerous enough to the state security hospital in St. Peter. 

The AMRTC is operated by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and currently has 83 patients. In the most recent complete year, according to DHS, 270 patients were treated there.

According to the agency, there are 414 employees include 254 who work directly with residents of the treatment center. Those numbers are divided among three shifts, with staffing numbers vary from day to day.

DHS Commissioner Tony Lourey met with staff Tuesday, and issued this statement to the media Wednesday:

"Nurses and other staff who care for patients in our psychiatric facilities have difficult and potentially dangerous jobs. I recognize and respect that they face challenges every day."

"I met this week with staff and labor representatives at AMRTC who are raising concerns about safety. Their insights and participation are essential to maintaining a safe workplace for staff and patients alike. Safety is a shared priority, and I’m confident that together we can address those concerns in a meaningful way."

For 33 years, the Anoka Police Department contracted with the state to provide security services but that ended in 2018. Since then, according to union members, the facility has handled security in-house by deploying teams of staff to respond to emergencies.

Some nurses have told their unions they've been expected to pick up patients from jails, and transport them back to the AMRTC without added security.

"We’re taking care of people that really need to be taken care of, right? But let’s get some safety in place," Sen. John Hoffman of Champlin asserted.

"Good intentions aside, let’s see some action."

Hoffman was one of the state lawmakers who spent time on the picket line with union members Wednesday. 

What happened in Anoka involved several unions who represent workers at the treatment center. 

It's not to be confused with ongoing informational pickets at Twin Cities hospitals the Minnesota Nurses Association is currently negotiating with on a new contract.

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