Oak Harbor woman traumatized by strip search sues hospital

A proposed class action alleges the Fairfax mental-health hospital may have violated patient rights.

KIRKLAND — When an Oak Harbor woman was admitted in March 2018 to the Fairfax Behavioral Hospital in Kirkland, she reportedly was told to undress for a mandatory search.

She told staff she had a history of being sexually abused. They reportedly ignored her pleas, and told her again to take off her clothes, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The door was left open and other staff members could see inside the room, according to court papers. A camera was recording the scene. And the woman was not given a gown or towel to cover up.

After she undressed, staff told her to pull down her underwear and bend over for a cavity search, attorneys wrote. She started shaking and crying, then curled up into a ball on the floor.

The lawsuit, submitted by attorneys with the Seattle-based firm Hagens Berman, called the process “humiliating.” The search was done without any indication that the woman might have weapons or drugs, the attorneys wrote in the complaint. It was unlike anything that would happen at any other mental health facility in the state, they wrote.

After the search, the woman experienced “severe trauma, nightmares, hopelessness and greatly increased urges to harm and kill herself,” the lawsuit states. After her release, she attempted to take her life.

“Fairfax failed to provide safe, non-abusive treatment with dignity and privacy,” the plaintiff alleged.

Not only could Fairfax’s practices intrude on patient privacy, the lawsuit states, it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the state’s Vulnerable Adult Protection Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

Fairfax CEO Rebecca Shauinger said in an email that she just learned of the complaint and declined to comment.

In addition to the 157-bed hospital in Kirkland, Fairfax Behavioral Health has two locations in Snohomish County. One is a 30-bed adult psychiatric care unit at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett’s Pacific campus. The other is a 34-bed senior adult psychiatric unit at EvergreenHealth Monroe.

The firm is asking the court to certify the case as a class action lawsuit. The woman, who was not named, is one of possibly hundreds of people who have been violated at Fairfax facilities, attorneys wrote.

Lawyer Steve Berman said in an email that he is aware of one other person with an experience similar to the woman’s. He expects more to come forward.

The lawsuit calls for compensation for plaintiffs’ suffering as well as permanent changes to Fairfax’s practices.

“Our class-action lawsuit seeks systemic changes to Fairfax’s protocols that will create safer hospitals for patients needing help,” Berman said in a statement.

Fairfax is unique in its practices, attorneys wrote. They pointed to other hospitals that have layers of oversight to prevent needless invasions of privacy. Other institutions will require a justification for a search, and only allow one when a doctor has ordered it. Video monitoring typically will be restricted.

“No psychiatric hospital in Washington state other than Fairfax permits its staff to arbitrarily conduct strip searches or cavity searches,” the lawsuit states. Moreover, attorneys wrote, no other hospital “makes and keeps video recordings of patients in various states of undress.”

This story originally appeared in the Everett Herald, a sibling paper to the Weekly.

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