'Completely gutted all of us': Crisis centre staff want change after violent sexual assault of nursing student

Staff at the Crisis Response Centre in Winnipeg are demanding safer working conditions after a student nurse was violently sexually assaulted by a patient in January.

Young worker was cornered, attacked by patient at Winnipeg's Crisis Response Centre in January

A young woman was sexually assaulted in January at the Crisis Response Centre on Bannatyne Avenue. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

This story contains descriptions of sexual assault that some people may find disturbing.

Staff at a Winnipeg facility that treats people experiencing mental crisis are demanding safer working conditions, after a student nurse was violently sexually assaulted by a patient in January.

Winnipeg police have charged a 29-year-old man with sexual assault and assault after the incident at the Crisis Response Centre on Bannatyne, adjacent to the Health Sciences Centre. The 24/7 facility for mental health emergencies operates closely with the HSC emergency department.

"It destroyed her life," a staff member who was aware of the attack, but is not the victim, told CBC on the condition of anonymity. 

"She's probably one of the sweetest, kindest, incredibly smart, very capable people I've ever worked with, and has much higher aspirations for health care. How she keeps putting one foot in front of the other…is really beyond me right now."

CBC spoke to other staff members as well to confirm the details of the event.

Worker attacked in laundry room

The young woman, a nursing student employed as a crisis support worker at the centre, was working the night shift on Jan. 5. The patient accused was being held overnight.

He had exposed his genitals to a worker earlier that day, staff said. The night shift staff were unable to get him admitted to the HSC that evening. 

Throughout the night, the man behaved erratically several times, said staff, including wandering out of his room naked.

It's really difficult to show up for work every day knowing your employer is not doing everything they can to keep you safe. ​​​​​​- Crisis Response Centre worker

At around 4 a.m., he wandered naked into the hall again.

The young crisis support worker walked toward him and tried to redirect him to his room. When he ignored her, she went to the laundry closet in the hall to get a towel to cover him, staff told CBC.

The staff member said the patient grabbed the victim and she started screaming. 

A security officer ran to intervene.

The patient began sexually assaulting the young worker in the laundry room, grabbing repeatedly at her body.

Someone activated a panic alarm, which alerted Health Sciences Centre security officers — about a five-minute walk away and someone called 911. The security officers arrived to try to help the crisis centre staff remove the man from the woman, but she was trapped.

The crisis centre security officer got punched several times in the face. Eventually, the workers were able to free the young woman and usher her into another room.

Staff members are calling for changes at the Crisis Response Centre to improve safety. 'We're still waiting on some structural changes that need to be done,' says MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky. 'This young girl deserved to go home safe at the end of her shift.' (John Einarson/CBC)

The staff member told the CBC the entire attack lasted between five and 10 minutes. 

"The incident itself was awful," said the staff member, adding not enough has changed, six months later. "That completely gutted all of us." 

Staff asked for changes

In the weeks and months following the attack, staff asked managers and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority officials for several changes to the Crisis Response Centre structure and protocols, including:

  • Training in Code White (violent incident) procedures.
  • Standardized communication of violence/sexual behaviours to all staff at shift change.
  • A lock for the laundry room door.
  • Surveillance video feed of hallway visible at the front desk.
  • Admission of all high-acuity, non-compliant psychiatric patients to Health Sciences Centre.

The staff member CBC spoke with said there's frustration at the centre over the lack of response so far, despite a growing number of patients and increased levels of violence.

Although it appears that incidents of violence are being investigated, it does not appear that adequate control measures have been implemented to eliminate or control the risk of violence to workers.- Workplace Safety and Health report

An inspection was done by Workplace Safety and Health in June, prompted by a concern about security at the CRC, according to a provincial spokesperson.

The report ordered that the provincial Shared Health organization alter the design of the building and/or processes to eliminate the risk of violence, implement recommended changes after each investigation into violent incidents, and provide an annual report on all violent incidents to a workplace safety committee.

It also highlighted that while security staff at the CRC are protected by an enclosure, front desk staff are not, and patients are not screened at admission for weapons.

The compliance date for the orders is July 8.

"Although it appears that incidents of violence are being investigated, it does not appear that adequate control measures have been implemented to eliminate or control the risk of violence to workers," the report states.

There have been other recent violent incidents at the centre.

Last summer, a man stabbed a security officer at the Crisis Response Centre with a syringe filled with blood.

In May, Winnipeg police used a Taser to disarm a knife-wielding man who was threatening front desk staff. They said he was under the influence of methamphetamine and alcohol.

Safety 'our first priority': Shared Health

A spokesperson for Shared Health Services would not comment on the sexual assault as it is an ongoing police investigation.

"Work on clinical safety practices, with the involvement of CRC management and staff, is ongoing," said Olivia Baldwin, on behalf of Shared Health. 

That includes more campus patrols of the Health Sciences Centre by HSC security (which staffs the CRC), and increased security presence at shift change, she said.

There's also work being done between clinical leaders and police to support patients who may require more intensive services at Health Sciences, said Baldwin. She said management acknowledge the need for changes to the space, facility access and security at the centre.

Video monitoring, secure elevator access, restricted access to the front desk, and additional panic alarms are in the works for the Crisis Response Centre, she said, and storage lockers for patients' personal belongings were recently added. An additional locked room is being added to the HSC for mental health patients, she said. 

"The safety of our staff and the patients/clients we care for is our first priority," said Baldwin, adding conversations with staff on their suggestions for safety improvements will continue.

'Same level of risk'

"They've taken this very seriously they've made some changes. We're still waiting on some structural changes that need to be done," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents crisis support workers.

"This is an extreme case. That said, it shouldn't have happened," she said.

"This young girl deserved to go home safe at the end of her shift."

The staff member CBC spoke with said while a mirror was installed in the hallway on the unit and two staff members are now required to check on a patients' well-being instead of one, workers are still waiting on training to deal with violent incidents and a lock on the laundry room door. 

The staff member said knowledge of Code White procedures would help workers co-ordinate their response to restrain a patient and would allow a nurse, if required in an emergency, to give a medication injection to sedate the patient.

The worker said the impact of the assault on the young woman has been huge and something she'll likely carry for the rest of her life.

"There's still people working this job that I care about greatly. And there's still the same level of risk."