When two employees at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center died just months apart in what the hospital described as domestic violence incidents, their co-workers were left wondering if they had missed signs at work about the problems at home and what they could have done to intervene.
It was a tragedy no one at the hospital wants repeated. Two years later, the Towson hospital is beginning to teach employees how to recognize and prevent domestic violence among its 2,700-person workforce. Organizers hope the shift in attention normally reserved for patients not only helps workers remain safe but sets a standard that can be replicated at other hospitals.
"When a staff member died, it really rocked the staff," said Michele McKee, a nursing supervisor who was among the first managers to go through training. "Everyone wanted to know if we missed something. We felt kind of helpless."
Some staff members knew something was amiss with one of the employees killed, but their suspicions weren't shared with a supervisor, and no one got the woman official help, said McKee, director of nursing services in medical, surgical, telemetry and rehab services. She said it was not surprising, given that the problem is so personal and telling others may feel like the worst kind of gossip or violation of privacy.
McKee said the training should help hospital staff and their managers understand how to approach someone who may be a victim, and who inside and outside the hospital to call for help.
More than 12 million people around the nation, mostly women, suffer from domestic or sexual violence or stalking by their intimate partners every year, according to a 2012 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University.
Among women killed on the job in recent years, the study found that family members were more of a threat than clients or co-workers.
Only about one in three workplaces has a domestic violence prevention policy, and fewer offer specific training for employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. A 2013 survey conducted by the group found that 65 percent of companies don't have a policy and only 20 percent offer training.
The St. Joseph program grew out of a collaboration with House of Ruth Maryland, a shelter for battered women and their children, and Futures Without Violence, a national nonprofit group that develops community-based programs to address domestic violence. The group started a similar pilot program in Florida targeting tomato pickers after finding that programs targeted to workers didn't really exist.
Linda A. Seabrook, who serves as general counsel for Futures Without Violence, said the group targeted employers of low-income workers in health care, retail, food service, hotel and agriculture who may feel that speaking up or asking for help would jeopardize their jobs.
Low-income workers may not have as many options or the financial means to leave an abusive relationship, she said. Many don't get time off work to go to the police or court, or can't get a change in work hours or phone extension, or an escort to their cars at night, to protect them from harassment from violent spouses or partners. They also don't get referrals for emergency shelters or new places to live.
"There haven't been programs in the workplace traditionally because employers haven't wanted to get involved, but this can impact the work people do," said Seabrook, adding that the St. Joseph program applies to everyone no matter the position, income, gender, sexual orientation or other factor. "We want to create a supportive environment where workers can receive assistance and there are policies in place to help people deal with incidents and promote safety."
The hospital previously responded when employees asked for special accommodations, typically with human resources making arrangements. But until now there was no official policy calling for compassion and support, said Leslie Hott, the hospital's human resources manager.
Hott spearheaded the effort with Futures and House of Ruth, as well as the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and TurnAround Inc., a domestic violence and sexual assault center.
The written policy will be distributed to the entire staff in coming weeks, and more training sessions are planned. Futures used a nominal amount of funding from a U.S. Department of Justice grant to pay the other groups for help with training, which included role playing and advice on using nonconfrontational language when questioning a colleague who may be an abuse victim.
Supervisors who attended a recent seminar said the program would bring relief to staff still roiling from the two recent deaths of co-workers. Many hospital employees have been on the job for years building close friendships and working relationships in often high-stress environments where the lives and health of their patients had been the primary focus.
In one of the deaths, workers who were close to Victoria Vernetta Glover said they knew about her problems at home but her demeamor at work never reflected them. The 28-year-old Parkville woman, who worked in a physician's office at St. Joseph, was shot in 2013 by her estranged husband while loading her 3-year-old son into a car in front of her Parkville home, police said. He was charged in her killing, but was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said. Glover had a restraining order against her husband and was in the process of divorcing him. She was due in court the day she was killed.
During the training the supervisors learned the delicate task of approaching an employee who they knew or suspected was having trouble or being abused at home. Instead of threatening the workers with punishment for coming in late or being distracted, they were instructed to say they noticed an unusual change in behavior, or that a boyfriend or husband was calling or visiting often. They were told not to push for details or even an admission, and to instead offer their support and, if needed, contacts in the human resources department or an aid organization.
Grace Serafini, director of nursing for mental health and maternal child services, said she tried to assist colleagues on her own when they began calling after the staff deaths. She now hopes those who have kept quiet about violence at home will feel that they have many avenues to seek help, either through co-workers, supervisors, human resource officers or through contacts to outside service providers. Staff that once may have felt the topic was taboo also may feel emboldened to reach out to discretely offer a hand.
"I've gotten a half dozen calls" from colleagues, Serafini said. "It's nice there is now an official hospital policy."
No one will be expected to counsel a colleague, Hott said. Her office has created fliers with contacts that will be distributed in cafeterias and even restrooms, where victims can discreetly pick up a small tri-fold brochure if they'd prefer not to bring their plight to the attention of anyone at the hospital.
The staff will be trained to recognize warning signs and know what to do, said Sandi Timmins, executive director of House of Ruth Maryland.
"When an employer understands the complexities of the victim's situation, is open about discussing it, is clear about what the employee can expect from the employer in terms of support, a victim is far more likely to ask for help," she said, "and a co-worker is better prepared to reach out to someone they are concerned about."
This program was specifically designed for the health care environment, and House of Ruth is ready to introduce it to other hospitals, Timmins said. However, she said, intimate-partner violence can happen anywhere — from executive suites in the financial services industry to the assembly line of manufacturing plants — and the group wants access to all workplaces.
Doing nothing could result in more injury or loss of life, tragedies that impact not only others at home but those at work.
"As you can imagine, this is devastating to an organization and the people who work there," she said of the deaths at St. Joseph. "Not only are they dealing with the shocking, horrific loss, but are also second guessing themselves about what they missed, or what they could have done."