Cari Dickson, a community health nurse that worked closely with mentally ill patients, has had more than her fair share of frightening encounters with patients. She was already worried about her safety when she went to check up on a man at his Seattle apartment in February 2021. She says the client pinned her down and tried to rape her during a home wellness visit.
“At that point, I don’t remember what happened — it happened so fast. The next thing I remember is I’m on the floor, pinned. He’s on top of me … and he is suffocating me, he has his hand over my mouth and nose and he’s pressing really hard. And he says, ‘Who sent you to kill me?’” Dickson said.
Two police officers arrived on the scene and were shocked to discover that Dickson went to the man’s apartment alone.
“They were like, ‘Wait, you’re a health care worker? You were sent here alone? We don’t even go out alone. We always work in pairs. This is not OK,’” she said during a recent interview at her attorney’s office. “I’m pretty sure there’s a law against that,” one of the officers told Dickson at the time.
The officer was correct. Attorneys Julie Kays and Cheryl Snow are now suing King County and Pioneer Human Services on behalf of Dickson and another nurse that claims she was assaulted on the job for putting providers in such dangerous situations. Both nurses were working for a Program for Assertive Community Treatment team at the time, known as PACT Teams.
Attacked and Alone
Dickson has since gone public with her story in the hope that it will encourage community health teams to protect nurses on the job. The other nurse, a psychiatric nurse practitioner now working in California, asked not to be named for privacy reasons.
The lawsuit claims that the County and Pioneer Human Services (PHS) violated the state’s Law Against Discrimination by repeatedly subjecting female employees to gender-based discrimination in the workplace, including sexual harassment, assaults, sexual assaults, threats and stalking by clients who were hand-picked for the program from criminal and involuntary-commitment dockets in King County Superior Court.
Dickson and her attorneys claim that the company repeatedly refused the nurses’ request to work in pairs and that their working conditions became “increasingly hostile, toxic, dangerous and volatile,” the lawsuit says.
The county was reportedly aware of each clients’ criminal history and propensity for violence, but the nurses claim that the company never shared this information with providers. Nurses were required to treat patients in their homes and transport them to medical appointments using their own personal vehicles.
The lawsuit also claims that the county violated Marty’s Law, a 2007 law that requires people who provide crisis care to dangerously mentally ill offenders to work in pairs. It also bars retaliation against any worker who refuses to go on home visits alone.
“Because King County and PHS blatantly ignored this critical safety law, it was commonplace for the County and PHS to send female PHS PACT Team workers out alone to the homes of dangerously mentally ill clients with no information on the dangers presented by these offenders,” the lawsuit says.
PHS, one of four PACT teams working for the county, dissolved its team of community healthcare providers just six months after Dickson was attacked. She says she is curious as to why the PACT suspended its operations and hopes to learn more during the discovery phase of the trial.
Both PHS and Kings County have declined requests for comment, but legal records show both parties continue to deny the allegations. They claim the third party, which would be the client in this case, is ultimately liable for anything that happens to providers.
It was virtually unheard of for employees to sue a company after being attacked by a non-employee until the landmark case involving Sheila LaRose, a former King County public defender, set a new legal precedent in 2015. She was stalked by a former client that she had represented in a felony stalking case. Her case established new protections for workers after the state Court of Appeals adopted the federal standard that an employer may be held liable for the harassment of an employee by a nonemployee.
A jury eventually awarded over $7 million in damages to the LaRose, but the county has appealed.
As for the nurses’ lawsuit, Kings County has taken a similar position to the one it took in the LaRose case. It said that the women’s damages were caused “by the intentional acts of persons … acting outside the scope of any control by defendant or over whom defendant had no control, and defendant is, thus, not responsible for those intentional acts.”
Both Dickson and her former colleague were regularly tasked with delivery antipsychotic medication to PACT clients. The nurse who asked to remain anonymous visited a house where several PACT clients were living in the first half of 2019. The client hadn’t been taking his medication. When the nurse arrived, she put his pills in her hand at the client’s request.
The man then grabbed her wrist, licked the pills off her hand, threw her on the bed, got on top of her and groped her, she said. She fought him off and ran out the door.
“Afterward, I was feeling really shocked and terrified and shaky and scared,” the nurse said. She reported the incident to her superior but not the local police.
“He said to me, ‘I’m not your therapist.’ And that was kind of the end of it,” the nurse recalled. She later learned from the local Corrections Department that the client “did in fact have a very significant violent history, including a history of attempted sexual assaults on other women that had never been revealed to us.”
The experience left her traumatized. “It’s damaged me, and it’s damaged my work and left me in a place where I’m more vulnerable to just being scared sometimes, even when I don’t need to be,” she said.
Dickson still lives with the fear and trauma of what happened.
“I’m really jumpy and I have nightmares and wake up screaming,” Dickson said. “I have two therapists and I’m doing all the right things, but it’s such a strange place for me to be in because I’ve always seen myself as a nurse and loved being a nurse and now … I can’t even imagine myself working as a nurse again.”