JAMESTOWN — Christin Eastman was cleaning a restroom in the male wing of Lahaug Hall at the North Dakota State Hospital when she felt an arm reach around her neck and lock her in a choke hold.
She was dragged backward from the sinks down a small hallway leading to the showers, struggled to free herself and screamed for help, she told police.
“She said she struggled and got his grip loosened and screamed out,” according to a police report. “He was hitting her. She said then she remembers opening her eyes and seeing other staff around her.”
Eastman, a housekeeper at the state hospital, suffered lacerations on her face, fractures and lost consciousness in the assault, the police report said.
Jason Benefiel, who police said was seen standing over Eastman covered in blood, was charged with attempted murder and two counts of felony assault in the March 29 attack. He has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.
Eastman, who is telling her story for the first time publicly to The Forum, said she was unaware of Benefiel’s criminal background, including multiple assault convictions.
Benefiel, who was in the hospital for psychiatric evaluation and who police said was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was convicted of two counts of simple assault in 2008 and, for an incident in 2007, was convicted of assaulting detention officers who brought cosmetic items to him in a jail segregation unit.
Later, Eastman, who still hasn’t been able to return to work, would come to believe that a policy change adopted so the hospital could regain its accreditation contributed to her attack by allowing Benefiel to elude confinement.
State hospital employee assaulted by patient
She believes that a safety protocol calling for two male staff members to be present in the wing wasn’t followed at the time of the assault.
“When my attack happened the two male staff were not on the unit,” she said.
State hospital administrators said, however, that there is no male staffing requirement on wards.
“There is no state hospital policy that requires a certain number of male staff members be present on any given unit,” the hospital said in a statement.
Similarly, Eastman believes the staff member who was monitoring security cameras was inattentive during the attack — the camera would have captured her being dragged down the hallway, she said.
“I thought I was safe and my life was in the hands of the camera person,” she said. “It gave me a false sense of security.”
Hospital administrators would not answer questions about the security cameras and whether they were properly monitored, saying they do not comment on “specific situations that are under investigation, currently being prosecuted, or specifically involve clients.”
It wasn’t unusual for nursing assistants who staffed the security camera monitoring booth to be disciplined for not paying proper attention, such as being distracted by smartphone videos, said Jessie Mead, Eastman’s sister and a former certified nursing assistant at the state hospital.
Still, she added, “There’s no reason why something like this should have been missed.”
Also, although staff at the hospital were supposed to carry radios for their safety, Eastman said she never was issued one.
“I was basically told that they were too much money,” she said. Instead, housekeepers were given pagers that were cumbersome to use.
“We were given pagers that were virtually pointless,” Eastman said. “It really wasn’t of use for emergency situations.”
The radios have a panic button, which staff call the “man down” button, to summon help if needed.
“As a CNA, I was never on that unit once without a radio,” Mead said. “I was told that was a dangerous unit to be on.”
Soon after the attack, she learned through co-workers and an email to staff, housekeeping staff were equipped with radios and worked in pairs for their safety.
The number of staff not directly assigned to direct patient care who carry radios was expanded following an “after-action review,” the hospital said in a statement. Such reviews “may result in changes in order to prevent future similar events.”
Eastman regularly said patients at Lahaug Hall have freedom of movement in the building, and many roam the hallways.
“The patients have free range in the unit,” she said. “They pace the halls to kill time.”
On the day of her assault, March 29, the unit was quiet, with only a few patients. Most were in classes or other activities.
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Nothing seemed unusual before the assault. Eastman won’t discuss the assault because the suspect still awaits trial. But she spoke freely about her experiences as a housekeeper at the state hospital, where she’d started working in mid-December.
During her orientation, new employees were told to expect abuse from patients, including physical abuse.
“We were told that staff would be hit, smacked, spit on and swore at,” but never told they could be brutally attacked, Eastman said. “They said basically we knew what we were getting ourselves into with the job.”
At the time, Eastman wasn’t alarmed. “They justified it well,” she said. "It seemed OK. At the same time, they assured our safety quite a bit.”
Rosalie Etherington, superintendent of the state hospital, issued a statement in response asserting that staff are instructed to report all incidents, including assaults:
“Staff are trained/oriented to report all assaults on an incident report AND to their supervisor,” she said. “The state hospital reports assaults to the police, with the exception of assaults involving individuals lacking competency (examples: dementia, acute episode of psychosis, etc.) Staff members are informed of their right to call the police if they are assaulted.”
But Eastman and Mead, who said she resigned from the state hospital in 2018, said employees commonly fail to report incidents because they are afraid of repercussions or because nothing is done about complaints.
“Everyone’s afraid they’re going to lose their job,” Mead said. “Nobody wants to step up and say anything.”
Mead said she quit her position when she learned her supervisor planned to fire her for write-ups and showing up late for work because of her child’s daycare schedule.
“People drop like flies at the state hospital,” Mead said. “People are let go. The door’s revolving. They leave or get fired.”
Staff turnover generally is high at psychiatric hospitals. The state hospital’s staff turnover rate was 24.2% in 2018 and 26.2%in 2017, according to state figures.
In fact, Eastman and her family believe they reported the assault to law enforcement, not the state hospital. While riding in the ambulance to the emergency room, Eastman called her mother to inform her of her injuries.
“I was shocked that no police presence was already there,” Eastman’s mother, Sanders Mead said, recalling her reaction when she arrived at the emergency room. “They (Eastman and Mead) said they couldn’t do that,” meaning report the attack to law enforcement. “I said, ‘Oh, no’ and I called to report the assault.”
Hospital administrators said they could not comment on whether they reported the assault because the information is confidential under federal law.
Although housekeepers were told during training not to allow themselves to be in a room with only one exit where they could be trapped by a patient, housekeepers also were trained to use their cleaning carts as protective barriers to help keep patients away if they became aggressive, she said.
“That was my only safety net to keep me away from patients,” Eastman said.
Sanders Mead holds the hospital responsible for the assault on her daughter. She said she was told that when Benefiel was held at the James River Correctional Center, which is located on the hospital grounds, he was on a 24-hour watch because of his violent behavior.
“Benefiel might have been the one who caused the assault,” she said, “but the state hospital was directly responsible for him.”
In its statement, the hospital answered that it “does not respond to accusations. State Hospital policy compares to hospital best practices and standards of our industry.” Also, hospital and corrections officials said they must keep information about patients and inmates confidential, so they couldn’t reveal if he was under watch and whether prison officials notified the hospital of that.
Christin and Charles Eastman moved from Michigan to North Dakota in search of better opportunities. They followed Christin’s parents, who found jobs plentiful and the state to be safe and hospitable.
“And we felt that before this happened,” Charles Eastman said. “It kind of pulled the carpet out from under our feet. Before this happened we had everything going for us.”
The housekeeping job at the state hospital provided decent wages and good benefits, including health insurance. Because of Christin Eastman’s post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, however, she is uncertain about whether she could go back there, unless she could be assured of her safety.
“Now we have to start over again,” Charles Eastman said. “We don’t know what the next step’s going to be.”
Since the assault, Christin has been unable to return to work. She said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, post-concussive disorder and anxiety as a result of the attack.
She required surgery to fix her broken nose and a dental procedure to straighten her front teeth, which were pushed in during the attack. More dental work, including root canals, will be required because of nerve damage to the teeth, Mead said.
When she came home from the hospital after the attack, her 10-year-old daughter was disturbed by her mother’s facial injuries and required counseling, family members said. Eastman also receives counseling.
“It has affected my life greatly and the life of my family,” Eastman said. “I’ve had to ask for help. I need to be taken places,” requiring her husband to take time off from work, without pay. “So that doesn’t help.”
Eastman, who said she is “haunted by nightmares,” decided to talk publicly about the assault in the hope that it would lead to changes that will better protect staff.
“It’s crazy how my attack that maybe lasted minutes has now consumed the life of not only myself but my family as well," Eastman said. "I feel I have been robbed of so much, everything has revolved around me and I feel so guilty for that. I’ve been robbed of normalcy and happiness.”
Readers can call Patrick Springer at 701-241-5522.