Death of a Social Worker: The Day After : 'Healers' face a crisis of their own

Times Staff Writer

There was the attractively dressed woman who stopped her car at the locked gate of the Santa Monica West Mental Health Center, cried at her steering wheel for several moments and drove off.

There was the agitated young man with long hair, describing himself as a former patient at the center and angry with the staff for not helping him. He walked by and muttered righteously at a man in the employee parking lot: "It was going to happen sooner or later."

And there was the nervous woman who leaned against a fence, killing time, wondering when the center would reopen so she could obtain a prescription for the drugs that stabilize her mind.

"People who don't have their medication," she said evenly, "are like the criminal who went awry yesterday."

Inside the old, faded-brick county mental health building, where the day before a mentally disturbed homeless patient had stabbed a psychiatric social worker to death, an equally broad range of emotions played out Wednesday. The men and women who are paid to evaluate mental crises were enmeshed in one of their own.

For four hours, the staff participated in a group therapy session about the death of Robbyn Panitch, 36, who was stabbed 31 times during a counseling session Tuesday with a man who authorities said had convinced himself that Panitch was the Antichrist.

The social workers, psychiatric technicians and psychologists had trickled into the murder site with gray or tearful expressions and walking postures that reflected dread and hostility at the thought of having to return so soon. They sneered at the new presence of an armed security policeman, provided by the county. They entered through the night door on the side of the building, carefully bolting the door after each employee went through.

"We're frightened," one said.

Detachment Shattered

It made little difference that the people who were traumatized by the attack on Panitch were experienced in the art of mental healing. Professional detachment was shattered.

"There are some professionals who have experienced this and are really torn," said Michael Roback, a senior clinician who said he was once Panitch's supervisor.

Officials said they were accepting emergency psychological cases Wednesday and said they hoped to reopen the center today. But there remained doubts about how quickly the staff would recover.

"A lot of people don't know if or how they will be able to work with clients in the future," Roback said, "especially those who saw it (the attack). It was very brutal, very gruesome. A very, very tragic way to die."

"I don't know how people are going to regroup," said Ralph Mitchell, acting chief of the Santa Monica center, and one of two employees who pulled the attacker off the dying Panitch after hearing her screams.

"Yesterday was a blur to me."

Expressions of Anger

The group therapy session, coordinated by a county occupational health team that counsels employees when co-workers are injured or killed, brought out not merely sadness and regret, but also anger. The anger stemmed from the belief of some workers that county budget cuts and related policy decisions have made their clinic a more dangerous place.

Recent directives that effectively limit new clientele to homeless people have created an environment in which the only patients counselors see are "dysfunctional, damaged people," said one psychiatrist, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. "These are street people. . . . The ones we could treat before--the chronically mentally ill--did not carry weapons."

"This was what everybody has been afraid of for months," said a center psychologist, also requesting anonymity. "There are more people who want, and we can't give them what we want. We're frustrated and they're frustrated."

The group staff session broke up in the early afternoon. Staff members were encouraged to break into smaller groups to talk to each other, or to simply go their separate ways if they felt like it.

Throughout the day, patients who had not heard of the attack, or were unsure whether the center was open, went to the locked gate. Many were there for medication. Some were homeless and knew they could find food and shelter referrals from the center as well as mental health counseling.

A Santa Monica woman who identified herself only as Nancy and said she had been going to the center for 13 years, arrived about 11 a.m. on the advice of her therapist. She was supposed to go in Tuesday at 1 p.m., but her therapist called her after the morning stabbing and told her to cancel. She did not want to tell Nancy the reason.

Disturbed Sleep

"Eventually I got it out of her," Nancy said as she waited for the staff to finish its discussion so she could see her therapist. "I didn't sleep too well last night. . . . You don't think of this place as a place where you have to worry about things like this."

Others arrived, too. A woman from a nearby office took flowers. The principal of a nearby school sent a letter of condolence.

Staff members faced the chore of practicing patience with irritated clients who were in no mood to be sympathetic.

A middle-aged man took his obviously on-edge son into the parking lot, desperate for counseling.

"We have an 11 o'clock appointment," the father said, unaware of what had transpired Tuesday.

"Come back later, you're not going to get it," a staff member said. "Or take him to Harbor General Hospital."

"You people handle this stuff very badly," the father said.

"Sure," the staff member said.

A car pulled into the center's parking lot. In it was Robbyn Panitch's brother, Mark, a lawyer. He had made the trip to pick up her personal effects. But the front gate was locked, and a bystander told Panitch that the staff was in a meeting.

"What's it about?" the brother asked.

His sister's death, he was told, and what to do about it.

Panitch, who had long been convinced that his sister worked in a dangerous setting, had a quick response.

"How about issuing guns?" he suggested.

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