Family of Slain Caseworker to Testify on Beacon Hill for 'Stephanie's Law'
The family of slain Peabody caseworker Stephanie Moulton will be on Beacon Hill Tuesday to testify on a bill aimed at improving worker safety at mental health facilities.
Kimberly Flynn of Peabody is on a mission to get “Stephanie’s Law” on the books and simple “panic buttons” installed for all human service workers at residential mental health facilities in Massachusetts.
Flynn and her family are poised now to testify on Beacon Hill Tuesday to convince state lawmakers of the need to adopt such basic safety measures in light of the death of 25-year-old Stephanie Moulton (Flynn’s daughter) nine months ago, allegedly killed by one of her patients.
A male patient, Deshawn Chappell, at the mental health clinic where Moulton worked in Revere allegedly stabbed her during a session this past January, killing her.
Flynn said “panic buttons,” which would act as a lifeline for staff the same way they are used in elder care homes for residents, are basic safety measures that should be in all group homes or mental health clinics. Flynn, family members and Toby Fisher, of the Boston area union that represents human service workers, spoke to a small crowd on Saturday afternoon during a rally at Buckley Field to gather more signatures before Tuesday’s hearing.
The panic buttons only cost $11.43 per month for each home, and connect a person directly to an operator on the other end of the phone line, said Flynn – the system could even be used by patients in times of emergencies, such as during a fire.
“It’s like a fire detector; it should just be in the house,” said Fisher.
The new bill was filed by state Sen. Fred Berry, who Flynn said has been invaluable to her in the months since she began her efforts to make a change.
“Senator Berry showed up at my daughter’s wake and he hasn’t left my side since,” she said.
Berry was unable to attend the rally on Saturday, but will be right there with her on Tuesday for the hearing, Flynn said.
Flynn and Fisher said this was just the first step in a long process toward reform within the industry.
Fisher said that just two weeks before Moulton’s death – and a similar case in Lowell where a male worker was killed at a homeless shelter – he had filed a bill for reform with the legislature. A system wide review by a taskforce of experts commissioned by the Department of Mental Health yielded a set of 17 recommendations to both improve safety and overall operations at clinics throughout the state.
He said those recommendations, which were tough even for those seeking change to agree upon, consist of requiring such things as buddy systems, adequate funding, criteria for clinical reviews, better communication procedures on clients and yes, electronic alarms.
“Stephanie wasn’t actually a member [of the Service Employees International Union], but it doesn’t matter. She was a sister who got killed in the line of duty,” said Fisher.
Flynn recalled on Saturday that it was at her daughter’s wake that she decided to take action. She said several of Stephanie’s coworkers came over to talk with her during the service, and each one looked just like her daughter, just as vulnerable to an act of violence.
“No other mother should go through this,” she recalled thinking.
With females representing the majority of caseworkers, something needs to be done to provide them with as safe a work environment as possible, reasons Flynn, Fisher and other supporters. Flynn noted she wasn’t aware of grave safety concerns in her own daughter’s situation – even Stephanie did not seem to know – until it was too late.
Mayoral candidate Sean Fitzgerald, who came out on Saturday to support the family’s effort to pass the bill, echoed the sentiments that it’s all about safety.
“We give police officers equipment to be safe and go home safe…we need to give that safety to [caseworkers] as well,” he said, noting his support wasn’t intended to be political, but as a Peabody native whose two sisters worked in the that field.
“This is heroic work [they do],” he said.
That spirit of heroism, compassion and self-sacrificing service to those in need was one character trait that defined Stephanie, her family said – she cared deeply about all her patients, and others.
“She always knew how to take care of people,” reflected her cousin, Joshua Talbot, a close childhood friend as well. He said she always wanted to take care of others as well, whether it was a larger problem or something simple like changing a flat tire.
“She was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known,” he said.
“She would put everyone before herself,” Flynn said, recalling how Stephanie would give one client a ride each day because he wouldn’t or couldn’t ride the bus.
“It was nine months on Tuesday and I couldn’t even get out of bed,” Flynn told family and friends on Saturday. “Every day is a battle.”
The journey since then to having a new bill to champion has been an education on several fronts for Flynn and she credits Fisher and Berry for standing alongside her every step of the way.
As Flynn hopes to give momentum to the new bill on Tuesday, she then will be off to fight a battle of a different kind in court. Flynn said a hearing on the wrongful death suit the family filed against North Suffolk Mental Health Center is also scheduled about an hour after she has to testify on the bill.
Flynn readily admits she’s still angry over her daughter’s death, particularly because she believes the situation was so preventable – both on the safety front and a question of whether Stephanie was briefed on Chappell’s history of violence – but this isn’t about her, it’s about Stephanie and helping others safely continue their work.
“My daughter’s not here today because of so many mistakes,” Flynn said – when you send your spouse or your child off to work, you expect them to be safe there. She hopes that can be true for caseworkers from now on.
“This [the bill] isn’t going to end until it goes through…even if it means sleeping at the Statehouse and getting in people’s faces,” said Flynn. “We will fight tooth and nail.”
It remains to be seen what sort of opposition, if any, the proposed bill will face. Flynn and Fisher do expect to see some pushback on a new expense, given the economic climate.
Tuesday's hearing will be before the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the Statehouse Room A2 at 1 p.m.
Editor's Note: Stephanie Moulton’s family has also created a Facebook page for Stephanie’s Law.