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Peabody

Symposium will honor memory of slain mental health care worker

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / July 12, 2012
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Eighteen months after Stephanie Moulton was allegedly killed by a client while working at a mental health group home in Revere, the state has found a way to honor the memory of the social worker from Peabody.

The budget recently signed by Governor Deval Patrick includes a provision requiring the state Department of Mental Health to conduct an annual Stephanie Moulton Safety Symposium, and includes $100,000 to fund the cost of the kick-off symposium this coming year.

The forums are intended for direct care workers who serve patients with mental illness, in particular those working at community residences, according to the office of Senate majority leader Frederick E. Berry, a Peabody Democrat who secured the budget provisions.

The events will provide an opportunity for those workers ­— employed by the Department of Mental Health or by state contractors — to learn about and discuss topics related to staying safe in their jobs.

“Ensuring that Stephanie’s name lives on in the symposium is significant so that we never forget the selfless work she did,” Berry said in a statement. “It is critical that this is an annual event to provide a continuous conversation on best safety practices in these professions.”

Berry said he first thought of establishing the symposium when he attended the wake and funeral for Moulton. He said he was struck by the fact that unlike wakes and funerals for firefighters and police officers, the ones for Moulton attracted scant media attention and almost no public officials.

“I thought how unfair, how cruel it is that society doesn’t value these underpaid people who are doing God’s work,” he said of direct care workers. “I tried to think of doing something to pay tribute to Stephanie. . . . More than anything, I just wanted to honor her memory.”

Moulton, who was engaged to be married, was killed on Jan. 20, 2011, while working at a group home in Revere run by the North Suffolk Mental Health Association, a state contractor. Deshawn James Chappell, a client at the residence, allegedly stabbed the 25-year-old Moulton in the neck, dragged her to her car, and drove her to a parking lot in Lynn, where he left her partially clad body.

Chappell, then 27, had a history of mental illness and violence, and his family had raised concerns with the group home days before the slaying that he was not taking his prescribed medications, the Globe reported this past February, citing court records. Moulton was not aware of his history and was alone with him in the home.

The Moulton family has filed a lawsuit against the North Suffolk Mental Health Association for allegedly failing to have a system in place for alerting employees to potentially violent clients. A spokeswoman for the association could not be reached for comment.

“Honoring Stephanie Moulton’s legacy is important to the entire mental health community and our thoughts remain with her family, friends, and coworkers,” Department of Mental Health Commissioner Marcia Fowler said in a statement.

She said Patrick “supports the annual Stephanie Moulton Safety Symposium to honor her memory and help the mental health community develop best practices.”

Kimberly Flynn of Peabody, Moulton’s mother, has been an outspoken advocate for measures to improve safety for direct care mental health workers following her daughter’s death. A strong supporter of the symposium plan, she said she is pleased to see it adopted by the state and that the forum will be named after her daughter.

“Instead of her being remembered as a girl who was murdered, she is going to be known for the positive changes that will result,” Flynn said.

Flynn, who said she hopes to play a role in organizing the symposiums, said she sees them as an opportunity for direct care workers “to talk about their concerns, their issues, what they feel needs to get fixed, to get everyone in one room together and hopefully start making some positive changes.”

At the same time, Flynn said she remains frustrated that other proposed safety improvements for mental health workers have yet to be adopted. Included is a bill she is promoting to provide mental health workers in community homes with panic buttons to wear around their necks, allowing them to summon help in an emergency.

Known as Stephanie’s Law, after Moulton, the bill is currently in a legislative committee. Berry, who filed the measure, said there are many questions about the plan still to be answered, including which workers would receive the panic buttons and how they would be funded.

The panic button proposal is among the recommendations of a safety task force that the Department of Mental Health established following Moulton’s death and the stabbing death a week later of a worker at a Lowell homeless shelter. Flynn said she would like to see all of the recommendations put in place.

“It’s been 18 months since my daughter passed away,” Flynn said, “and there have been some changes . . . as far as training. But major changes haven’t been made. I’m still hearing stories of people being left alone in facilities.

“A beautiful 25-year-old girl who loved her job went to work one day and was brutally murdered,” Flynn said. “Nobody seems to be realizing that changes have to be made to the system.”

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