COON RAPIDS, Minn. (KMSP) - A state program that is racking up millions of dollars in workers’ compensation claims is also seeing hundreds of state employees getting hurt on the job and putting community members at risk.
One of those cases includes a man--the only occupant of a state-run group home in Coon Rapids--with 67 police encounters.
Recently, he walked into a store and randomly attacked a customer and her teenage daughter.
"He grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground. She never had a chance to see it coming," said Chief Brad Wise of the Coon Rapids Police Department.
The man, whose initials are W.O., was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, physically abused as a child and ultimately placed in the care of the state.
His behavior is so challenging that at least three workers are with him around the clock, seven days a week.
"I was kind of hoping I could hold him," said one of the workers who was with him after the attack.
The worker took him to that store for an outing and W.O. wanted to smell the perfume on display. Then, without warning, he went on the attack.
Before this incident, W.O.'s violent outbursts had primarily been directed at staff or himself.
Kaija McMillen was one of his security counselors at the state hospital in St. Peter where he lived before being placed in the group home. In 2015, he grabbed her by the hair and repeatedly slammed her head into a brick wall. She's had seizures, chronic headaches and is unable to work.
"I now have a traumatic brain injury and PTSD," said McMillen. "We might as well be punching bags out there, we don't have the proper equipment to protect ourselves."
COMP CLAIMS NEARLY $2.5 MILLION
The union which represents government group home employees said now, more than ever, their members are sitting ducks for assault.
"We believe that being injured is not a part of our job description,” Union Spokesperson Jennifer Munt said.
More individuals, like W.O., who struggle with extreme behaviors are being placed in the state's 119 group homes as part of an effort to integrate them with society.
Since 2014, state group home employees have filed more than 500 workers' compensation claims.
Approximately 350 injuries were the result of aggressive behavior by a client.
The cost of these claims just last year was nearly $2.5 million.
“We're caring for a lot more people we call sort of the safety net individuals, the people who the private sector can't or won't take care of," said Chuck Johnson, Deputy Commissioner with the Department of Human Services.
"We need to have training about how to handle physical confrontations when they happen very quickly," said Munt.
BEAR HUGS ALLOWED
The courts have put limitations on what employees can do to control the behavior of their clients.
Physical restraints or isolation techniques are no longer allowed, while the state’s training includes how to talk an individual into calming down.
If that doesn't work, they can manually restrain them with a bear hug.
Workers' last resort is to call police who can use force if necessary.
In Isanti County, Sheriff Chris Caulk worries one of the encounters will eventually turn deadly.
"It seems like we're going monthly," he said. "I think about what amount of force is going to be needed to subdue some of these individuals because we don't know what kind of medicines they're on, we don't know any background."
Back in December, workers at a state group home were unable to stop a client from running away. He ended up in the middle of Highway 65 while squad car video captured the drama.
"Hey dude, what's going on? asked a deputy.
“I wanna die,” said the client.
“No, we don't want that to happen," a deputy responded.
Officers stopped traffic and talked him off the roadway before anyone got hurt.
In March, there was an incident on Main Street in Cambridge.
Ashley Rustand was attacked while driving a client to an outing.
The man tried grabbing the steering wheel from her. As she tried to maintain control and pull over, he started throwing punches.
"I was repeatedly punched in the head and my wrist ended up being severely sprained and I had a severe concussion," she said. "I missed over a month of work and I still have post-concussion syndrome from that incident."
The state and the worker's union agree, most group home residents can do very well integrating into the community and pose little--if any--danger.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
But complicated cases like W.O's are pushing both caregivers and law enforcement to the limit.
Coon Rapids Police have encountered him on multiple occasions--including an incident at a convenience store where he got angry and ran around, knocking items to the floor.
According to the police report, staff from the group home could only stand by and watch and wait until officers arrived.
"This person doesn't belong in community-based treatment, he belongs somewhere more secure where the public can be safe from him,” Wise said.
"I can't say at this point [whether or not to remove W.O from the Coon Rapids Location]," Johnson said. "I don't know that necessarily addresses the issues we need to with that individual. So I wouldn't say that. No."
The state is required under a court settlement to offer community-based treatment to persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some are very expensive.
In W.O’s case, staff time alone is costing a million dollars a year.
The Department of Human Services is asking lawmakers for another $10 million to adequately staff its group homes.