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Nursing Shortage

As controversy around MSARC continues, the city attorney's office assumes oversight of the center.

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Restroom stalls at City Hall encourage victims of sexual assault to visit the city's sexual assault resource center.

But in recent months, it's been the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center (MSARC) that's been under assault.

The center, whose staff performs exams on rape victims, testifies in court, and counsels victims, recently has been plagued by allegations of mismanagement under Public Services director Ken Moody and deputy director Yalanda McFadgon. The problems became public after two alleged victims — both teenagers — were turned away because there wasn't a nurse on duty at the center.

Then, after discrepancies were discovered with the center's upcoming budget, City Council member Jim Strickland called for a financial audit.

City mayor Willie Herenton announced earlier this week that Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center would examine victims under 18. And most recently, during a council committee meeting, Memphis CAO Keith McGee announced that the city attorney's office would assume executive oversight of MSARC, and the center would be audited by an outside firm.

"MSARC remains a model agency, and we have a commitment to provide service at that level," McGee said.

Before discussion about MSARC began at the Public Services committee meeting, Moody and McFadgon, already at the table for a previous item, excused themselves from the room. And though the city has now hired a full-time manager for MSARC, questions linger about why they didn't do so for more than a year.

"The crux of it is, there needed to be a manager. I don't see a reason why there wasn't a full-time on-site manager," said a former MSARC staff member. "There was an opening; it was posted; they had people apply. Then they froze the position."

The staffer, who asked not to be identified, recently left the center after working there for more than 15 years. She called the climate under Moody and McFadgon "strained" and said though nurses ostensibly left because of city residency requirements, the real reason they left was management.

"No one ever said, What can we do [about nurses leaving]?" she says. "There was little respect for nurses or what they did."

Last September, the center had 10 nurses, most of them part-time. By January, they were down to seven. Then three more left or were fired. The city's then-nursing coordinator, Judy Pinson, took over many of the extra shifts — 27 in February, more than 30 in March, and 33 by the time she left in April. The two teenagers were turned away after Pinson left.

Deborah Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women's Council, says they were aware of the staffing issues before Pinson's departure but didn't feel they were in a position to speak out. District Attorney Bill Gibbons wrote a letter to the administration, warning them of problems, but didn't hear anything in response. (Gibbons recently asked the state for an investigative financial audit of the center.)

In the center's 2010 budget, the city shows the center's charges for services in 2009 to be $100,000. However, state of Tennessee records show that the city was reimbursed $538,000 for exams through the end of March.

"Federal funds come here for each rape victim's examination. The city is apparently not putting that money back into the operation at MSARC," Clubb says. "Under these bizarre circumstances, it seems like a horrific crime is generating spare cash for the city."

At the Public Services meeting, McGee told council members that the city had used a very low estimate.

During the last year, however, MSARC nurses were told the city could not afford to pay for certifications or professional development. After Pinson's departure, though, some of the nurses have been hired back at higher pay.

Councilman Strickland says that may not be a long-term solution because of the city's residency requirements.

The staffer thinks the part of the story being lost is about experience. She has been a nurse since 1970. Two of the nurses who left in January had been with the center for more than a decade:

"It takes a long time to be comfortable doing these exams and interpreting what you find. You don't learn it overnight. It takes years."

"You have to be able to testify in court," she adds. "You have to be experienced enough to be qualified as an expert witness."

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