Sheilah A. Davenport, chief executive of Maryland's maximum-security psychiatric hospital since 2006, is stepping down at the end of February, health officials announced this month.
Davenport, a nurse and lawyer, presided over a tumultuous time in the 50-year history of Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, including the strangling of a patient there last year. Her resignation was announced to staff in a memorandum Feb. 7.
Susan Steinberg, director of forensic services for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, will take over Davenport's responsibilities while a search is conducted for her replacement, a process expected to take up to three months, said David Paulson, a spokesman for the agency.
News of her resignation comes weeks after a health department investigation concluded that Perkins staff members were inattentive and did not perform required bed-checks the night in September that a patient, Susan Sachs, 45, was strangled in her room. Video surveillance showed that El-Soudani El-Wahhabi, also a patient, entered and exited Sachs' room in the span of nine minutes the evening before Sachs' body was found. After he told police that he strangled Sachs with a shoelace, he was charged with murder and is awaiting trial.
Davenport declined to comment on why she is leaving, but she told the Maryland Gazette in an article published online Wednesday that it had nothing to do with Sachs' killing.
The health department investigation found that staff members on duty that night slept on the job and watched television, problems Davenport vowed to fix by placing more staff on certain shifts and increasing the oversight of night shift workers.
Davenport has held various leadership positions within the Mental Hygiene Administration in the past decade, amid the agency's effort to reduce the number of beds at state psychiatric hospitals, following a national trend in steering more patients to community mental health facilities. The MHA oversees the state's psychiatric facilities and is under the auspices of the health department.
Perkins houses more than 260 patients, many of whom are sent there by Maryland courts to be evaluated for their competency to stand trial. Others are sent to Perkins after being found not criminally responsible for crimes they have committed.
Davenport also presided over Perkins during a time of deep budget cuts to the health department, and the hospital was forced to regularly rely on overtime shifts to staff its wards, which some former employees said led to exhaustion.
Patrick Moran, director of the Maryland branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents Perkins workers, said adequate staffing is essential to ensuring patient and staff safety.
"We've seen cuts in every department across the board here, but we're dealing with people who need attention on a consistent basis, and that has to be staffed properly for everyone's safety," Moran said.
In 2008, health department investigators found, a patient died of blood clots after staff members did not completely assess her, even though she had several risk factors. And in 2009, investigators found that staff had allowed a patient to use his metal bed frame as a makeshift bench press, despite hospital rules against the practice. The man died after he had a cardiac arrhythmia and the 78-pound bed landed on his neck and chest.
The health department has issued an advertisement for Davenport's position. Dr. Raymond Patterson, who served as Perkins' chief executive from 1992 to 1994, said the dual mission of the hospital — to protect the public from violent criminals while treating those individuals — requires an experienced doctor at the helm.
"A forensic psychiatrist brings qualifications that are … unparalleled," said Patterson, who now works in private practice as a forensic psychiatrist. "They should have both the experience and training as well as a good understanding — if not an excellent one — of the complexity of trying to blend clinical expertise with the requirements of the criminal justice system and ultimately, of course, community safety."
But because experienced forensic psychiatrists are hard to find, Paulson said, the department is expanding its search to include applicants with lesser degrees but more experience in health care management, particularly in managing psychiatric wards.