A top Arizona lawmaker said he is assigning staff to take a deeper look at the Arizona state mental hospital and may call for hearings because of an ABC15 investigation that exposed an "astronomical" level of violence and escapes from the facility.
House minority leader Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said it's clear changes need to be made at the Arizona State Hospital.
"There is a significant problem over there," he said. "Looking at the reports you guys have come out with and some of the numbers that you've surfaced, I think we have to take a very detailed look at what's going on over there."
The ABC15 Investigators have been investigating safety and security at the hospital for more than eight months. We've uncovered there have been at least 18 escapes from the hospital since 2010 – four patients have never been found .
Our investigation also discovered there were more than 850 assaults in the past 13 months – either patients attacking patients or patients attacking staff.
In the past several years, assaults have led to an average of 200 injuries per year, according to state workers' compensation records. Hospital workers have also missed more than 24,000 hours of work due to injuries.
"It's astronomical," Campbell said. "We should not be jeopardizing the safety of state workers and then obviously having to compensate for it by taxpayers' dollars."
Mental health experts agree.
Dr. Mark Wellek, former president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, said the numbers are "catastrophic."
He also said it's doubtful that effective treatment can be provided in such a violent environment.
"Where there is security, it's possible to provide help," Wellek said. "Where there is not security, all you can do is cover your ass."
"That's not treatment, that's simply every man for himself," he said.
While the state mental hospital has always been a dangerous place, the ABC15 Investigators talked to dozens of insiders who said it's getting worse.
Our sources point to the decision to cut security by more than half last year.
Former hospital CEO Cory Nelson is responsible for that decision. Nelson's recently been promoted to Deputy Director in the state health department.
He calls his decision to cut security part of his "vision" for how the hospital should be run.
Nelson also renamed the security force "campus support," and he wants patient-care staff to provide their own security.
"When you have a large security department, you actually have a false sense of security," he said. "We're going to be so much better off."
But insiders tell us the cuts have left them in constant fear for their safety.
"Some staff I'm sure probably do not feel safe," Nelson said. "But when you look at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, they rated some of these facilities some of the most challenging in the United States."
But after seeing our investigation, Rep. Campbell is not convinced that the hospital's approach to security is the safe or correct answer to those challenges.
"I need to talk to some of my colleagues down here," he said. "Hopefully next year, we can have some hearings at the very beginning of session."
"Something has to change over there bottom line. We've got to make sure it's a safe environment. We got to make sure that money is being used effectively. And we got to make sure that people are not getting out of that system into the general public," Campbell said.