A new lawsuit filed by a clinical social worker at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta alleges years of harassment and negligence at the 92-bed state psychiatric hospital, saying staff and patients have been endangered in the process.

Starting in 2011, Jennifer Taghavidinani of Oakland complained of harassment and mistreatment to her supervisor, then to the hospital’s human resources director. Taghavidinani said some staff members at the hospital were not acting professionally and that both she and patients there were suffering as a result. She filed a grievance through her union, filed a formal complaint with a government oversight office, shared her experiences at Riverview with Daniel Wathen, who serves as court master for a consent decree governing how the state is to treat people who have severe and persistent mental illness, and she spoke to the press.

Now, she’s suing Riverview, which has been plagued with problems of recruiting and keeping staff who oversee people who are committed through the state’s criminal and civil system. Meanwhile, state lawmakers recently blocked Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to allow some dangerous or violent psychiatric patients to be held in a special Maine State Prison mental health unit, a stalemate that highlights ballooning concerns about the hospital’s future.

Taghavidinani also names former superintendent Jay Harper in the complaint, which seeks damages for “extreme anxiety, sadness, frustration and despair because of the way she was treated at Riverview.” Harper resigned as Riverview superintendent in March.

“Riverview failed repeatedly to respond to reports of unsafe and illegal practices made in good faith in the interests of the patients and staff,” the complaint alleges.

Taghavidinani, through Portland attorney Cynthia Dill, filed the lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court in Augusta alleging the Augusta psychiatric facility allowed harassment, retaliation and threatening against Taghavidinani and gave unwarranted privileges to violent forensic patients, who have been deemed not criminally responsible or incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness.

It also says that as a result of her complaints, Taghavidinani was eventually moved to a workplace outside the hospital that lacked a computer and a phone, and she was not given any work to do.

On Friday, Samantha Edwards, manager of media relations for the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state hospital, said the department does not comment on legal matters, and she declined further comment.

While no response from the defendants has been filed in court yet, Dill said they have been served with notice of the lawsuit and she anticipates a response from the Office of the Maine Attorney General, possibly in the form of a motion to dismiss the suit. Dill also said Friday that she planned to advise her client not to speak to a Kennebec Journal reporter because it could affect the case. Taghavidinani also declined to be photographed.

Workers at Riverview in January told state legislators at a special forum that short-staffing has resulted in mandated shifts and forced overtime and has driven away good workers leaving those remaining exhausted. As a result of that meeting, state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, introduced a bill to give a $2-$4 hourly wage increase beginning July 1 for mental health workers, nurses and others who provide direct care to patients at Riverview as well as at Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

That bill, L.D. 1645, was passed in both the House and Senate in Friday’s session that ended early Saturday morning and carries a cost of $944,000.

In addition, a number of Riverview employees have been victims of violence over the past few years, and acuity specialist positions were created several years ago to replace corrections officers who worked briefly at the hospital following a particularly vicious assault by a patient on a mental health worker.

The federal Centers forMedicare and Medicaid Services agency, which oversees Riverview funding, found numerous problems during an audit, including the use of stun guns, pepper spray and handcuffs on patients; improper record-keeping; medication errors; and failure to report progress made by patients. As a result, the hospital lost eligibility for federal reimbursement of about $20 million annually.

BULLYING ALLEGED

Taghavidinani charges the defendants with violating the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act, the Maine Human Rights Act and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and accused them of violating her constitutional right to free speech.

She wants a court to find actions by Riverview and Harper unlawful, grant an injunction to keep similar acts from occurring, and pay her damages, including lost wages and punitive damages.

In the meantime, Dill said Taghavidinani is back working at Riverview.

“I believe she is doing the work of a social worker and in circumstances for which she is largely untrained,” Dill said.

The lawsuit outlines the chain of events, saying Taghavidinani began work at the state psychiatric hospital in March 2010 as an intensive case manager, helping high risk mental health patients from admission to discharge.

Initially she received a very favorable evaluation, it says, but in 2011, after taking leave to be treated for leukemia, she said a coworker began bullying her and criticizing her looks, including baldness and weight gain.

The lawsuit also says the coworker “developed unprofessional relationships with clients that exceeded professional boundaries” and demanded she, not Taghavidinani, be assigned a particular patient, saying “he’s my little baby … I just love him … and I know him so well.”

When Taghavidinani filed formal complaints with her director at work and the human resources department, Taghavidinani was blamed, she says. She said after again reporting mistreatment in May 2013, one mental health worker began a campaign to undermine her work.

“In early 2013, the harassment, bullying and hostile environment at Riverview got much worse,” Taghavidinani alleges in the lawsuit. “Certain mental health workers who had worked there for many years — and many who were related — assumed authority and engaged in practices that were unsafe, unprofessional and damaging to patients.”

The complaint alleges that a unit nurse director brought volatile forensic patients to the civil unit, where Taghavidinani worked, and provided one patient with unauthorized privileges such as food and electronic games. It also alleges a dangerous patient was wrongfully given a “device” that he used to “make a knife and cut himself severely, resulting in blood all over the unit and an unnecessary heightened sense of fear and danger in an already stressful place.”

Taghavidinani also alleges that a “young female colleague” was asked to, and agreed to, stand in a patient’s doorway so he could perform a sexual act on himself.

“This colleague and many others quit Riverview citing horrendous working conditions and an extremely hostile and dangerous environment,” the suit says.

‘NOBODY SPOKE TO HER’

Taghavidinani says she was told to throw out receipts and then was accused of misappropriating patients’ funds. She was later exonerated because she had kept those receipts.

Another social worker, Judith Dorsey of Belgrade, and Taghavidinani filed a union grievance in October 2013 saying the situation “was becoming intolerable and dangerous to patients and staff.”

“Favored patients … were placed on the civil unit of Riverview where Jennifer worked when they clearly should have been on the forensic units reserved for the violently mental ill. Jennifer was not trained or equipped to deal with these violent offenders,” but staff “used their influence to make inappropriate placement decisions and took pleasure in Jennifer’s fear and anxiety.”

Taghavidinani was later moved to the “Assertive Community Treatment” team, transferred to a building on East Chestnut Street in Augusta that was being renovated and ordered “not to speak to anyone at work.”

In spring 2014, Taghavidinani brought a formal complaint to the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. Soon afterward, she “was ordered to report to a location on Anthony Avenue (Augusta) with absolutely no work to do or explanation as to why she was there.”

The complaint says Taghavidinani spent almost two months there “holed up in a cubicle with nothing to do, under express orders to speak with no one under threats of discipline or discharge. It was akin to solitary confinement and extremely stressful and emotionally painful. There was no computer, no phone, no work to do and nobody spoke to her.”

On Aug. 11, 2014, Taghavidinani returned to work at Riverview and was assigned to the Lower Saco Unit, where the most acute forensic patients — those sent there in connection with criminal charges — are treated, and the next day “a patient charged her to attack her.” Taghavidinani says she had received no training on how to handle such patients.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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