In her lawsuit against Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital, an acute psychiatric facility in Sonoma County, CA, operated by Aurora Behavioral Healthcare and Signature Healthcare Services, former chief nursing officer Teresa Brooke alleges she was fired for complaining about unsafe conditions for patients and staff.

“Plaintiff arrived at the hospital to find dangerous conditions unlike anything she had encountered in her 30 years of nursing. Running on a shoestring budget from corporate leadership at Signature, the hospital was plagued by a high incidence of injuries resulting from understaffing of the skilled nurses and other caregivers needed to care for high-needs patients,” according to the complaint. “While the overriding goal of clinicians like plaintiff was ‘safety first,’ the company’s overriding concern was increasing patient census (or, headcount) and minimizing costs. For the company, profits came first and patients dead last.”

The lawsuit claims that outdated practices long abandoned by the psychiatric community flourished at the hospital, including the “warehousing” of patients who were “left with little to do other than pace up and down the halls of the unit or sit in front of a television. There were not enough staffers to provide anything but the most basic supervision, and sometimes not even that.”

Underpaid and overworked staff nurses and mental health workers faced repeated violent outbreaks among patients, the lawsuit claims. Staff and patients were subjected to routine punching, kicking, choking, and patients even rioted at one point, Brooke claims. Patients, including minors, also were subject to a high incidence of patient self-harm and sexual violence because staffing was too low to adequately supervise them, the lawsuit claims.

In October 2016, the company abruptly fired Aurora’s chief executive officer, who had supported Brooke’s recommendations, including postponing the opening of the new unit and capping admissions, the lawsuit claims. The company appointed its chief financial officer as interim CEO.

“Seeing the futility of her internal resistance and fearing that the new unit would open before staffing levels could support it, plaintiff complained to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), blowing the whistle to the government about Aurora’s severe, dangerous, and illegal understaffing,” the lawsuit says. “Less than a month later, on the day after Thanksgiving 2016, Signature and Aurora retaliated, firing plaintiff without warning because she would not silently abide the company’s push for profits over the rights of patients and staff. Shortly after, CDPH substantiated and validated plaintiff’s complaint about understaffing and unsafe conditions at the hospital.”