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Former employees blast Southeast Human Service Center

FARGO -- Southeast Human Service Center provides inadequate treatment for adults battling addictions and ineffective management, say two therapists who recently left.

A psychiatrist and mental health therapist said they were among at least 10 employees who left in the past year or so in frustration at the center, one of eight regional human services hubs in the state.

But the official who oversees the regional human service centers said turnover at Southeast is half the statewide average of 12 percent, and said the center has been recognized for an innovative new program to treat patients who have both serious mental illness and chemical dependency.

One reason for the departures is a heavy focus on meeting productivity measures that can conflict with doing what's best for clients, a former Southeast therapist said.

"The care that you provide is compromised when you are pushed, pushed, pushed," said Ruth Denton-Graber, a mental health therapist who resigned in December after 22 years with Southeast.

Charlotte Siemens, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating children and adolescents, recently left in frustration after 17 years at the center.

"My main reasons for doing so are due to lack of leadership and communication from the administration here at SEHSC, and due to the inadequate treatment program for adult addiction services," Siemens wrote in a Jan. 1 letter to Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Maggie Anderson, interim executive director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

"Staff morale is the lowest I have seen in the 17 years I have been here," Siemens wrote. "As of the middle of February all of the therapeutic services staff will have left primarily due to unacceptable expectations and unprofessional treatment by supervisors."

Alex Schweitzer, director of field services for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said some staff have left over "philosophical differences" or retirement, but said Southeast has low turnover, indicating stability and overall staff satisfaction.

"I think we're seeing progress," Schweitzer said. "There's significant progress in dealing with people with addictions. Our outcomes data show people are improving."

Southeast is piloting a new dual treatment program for people who have serious mental illness as well as chemical dependency that is showing promising results, he said.

Over a four-year period, two groups totaling 25 clients showed positive results including reductions in emergency room admissions, acute psychiatric hospitalization and long-term psychiatric hospitalization, according to a report from Southeast.

Caseloads at Southeast have dropped by almost 100 in recent years, and the center is seeing fewer child and adolescent psychiatry cases because private providers are offering more services, Schweitzer said.

On the other hand, he added, the severity of cases has increased, so Southeast is seeking an additional six staff members to handle a more complex caseload.

Another concern of Siemens', that children and adults with a past of abusing children shared a common waiting room at Southeast, has been addressed, Schweitzer said.

Siemens first wrote of her concerns last July, and never received a reply as of January, she said. Seeing offenders, including some in orange jail jumpsuits and handcuffs, can be disturbing to children who were abused, she said in an interview.

The center is being remodeled. Also, Schweitzer said, "The waiting area is well supervised," and sex offenders in custody are accompanied by jailers.

"I do not share the concern the individual had with security and safety," Schweitzer said, although he commended Siemens as an excellent psychiatrist who had served the center's clients well.