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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Western State Hospital chief fired in wake of escapes

Cheryl Strange, the new head of Western State Hospital, stands with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee during a news conference Tuesday. (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee fired the head of Western State Hospital a week after two dangerous psychiatric patients escaped.

“It is clear transformational cultural change is needed at this hospital,” Inslee said.

Cheryl Strange, former assistant director of the Department of Social and Health Services Mental Health Division, will take over for ousted hospital Chief Executive Officer Ron Adler.

Strange earlier worked as a deputy secretary at the state Department of Corrections. She will leave her current position as the senior director of the Health Benefits Trust for the Service Employees International Union.

Western State has had a number of problems with staffing levels and court orders to provide better or faster treatment. Last week, two patients in its civil commitment ward escaped through a secured window that had been tampered with.

The two were later caught, including Anthony Garver, who was facing a murder charge but had been ruled incompetent to stand trial. Spokane County deputies, aided by a police dog, captured him in the Mount Spokane foothills not far from the home of his mother and stepfather.

Strange’s appointment completes a recent series of staffing changes that include a new assistant secretary at DSHS, which oversees the hospital, a new chief medical officer, a new chief nursing executive and a new compliance officer to ensure the facility meets mandates from state and federal regulators.

“An all-new leadership team is now in place at Western,” Inslee said. He expects them to “act with all due urgency to make sure no more dangerous patients get away from Western.”

Some Republicans were skeptical. Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant, who is running against Inslee for governor this year, says appointing someone who formerly worked for DSHS and Corrections “looks more like musical chairs than a serious attempt at culture change.”

Sen. Mark Miloscia, chairman of the Accountability and Reform Committee and a candidate for state auditor, said the new leadership was “welcome but overdue.” Strange needs to develop a detailed corrective quickly to restore confidence in the hospital, he added.

“Without real accountability and performance, we can expect the care and safety of both staff and patients to continue to suffer,” Miloscia, R-Federal Way, said in a statement. “For the sake of our state, I hope this is more than just shuffling the deck chairs on a sinking ship.”

Inslee said Western State sustained the loss of about 400 positions during the recession and has yet to replace all those staff members. The pay is below that of similar jobs in the private sector.

The Legislature approved some money for bonuses this year and the hospital is adding about 15 new employees a month, but it still has times when a staff member works an extra half-shift to cover a needed position.

Before the escapes, Inslee said he and DSHS Acting Secretary Pat Lashway had been discussing replacing Adler as the hospital’s CEO. “It would be fair to say (the escape) accelerated the change.”

Lashway said the hospital is reviewing security of the structure, as well as policies and procedures in the wake of the escape, and she expects to have a report “in a couple weeks.”

The state needs a more secure facility than Western State to house patients who have been charged with serious crimes, been judged not competent to stand trial but don’t respond to treatment and are then held on a civil commitment, Inslee said. Courts have ruled they cannot treat them the same as convicted criminals.

“They need to be treated as a patient under the law,” he said. “We need to ramp up security measures.”