Dr. Don Soeken knows a thing or two about insanity. He started working as a clinical social worker at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill in 1982, then treating about 30 patients a year. Over the years, though, his caseload started to grow, reaching almost 50 clients. Soeken worked lunches and evenings but was still having trouble keeping up, so he started complaining to supervisors. “I’d been telling them all along I couldn’t keep up,” Soeken recalls. “I was overloaded, but so was everyone else.”
The complaints soon arrived at the desk of St. Elizabeths Officer in Charge Jeannette Wick, who was none too sympathetic. According to Soeken, Wick started to crack down on him, keeping detailed notes and memos of every one of his infractions. “Ms. Wick [came] after me,” Soeken recalls. “She [came] after me with a vengeance, writing the most caustic, degrading memos I have seen in my life.”
Soeken claims, too, that Wick threatened to fire him if he didn’t voluntarily retire. After he declined to do so, Soeken says, Wick retaliated by canceling his outside professional activities and planting negative evaluations in his file, one of which led to his early retirement in 1994.
In a meeting with Wick and another supervisor before his resignation, Wick’s harassment became too much for Soeken to bear, and the big, burly man broke down in tears. “I was crying at the time. I was just devastated about what was happening,” says Soeken, a bit feverishly. “I told her she didn’t give a damn about my career.”
Soeken says he was so traumatized by Wick’s harassment that he started seeing a psychiatrist himself. Colleagues who claim to have had similar run-ins with Wick have visited the same psychiatrist. Dr. Swarnalatha Prasanna, chief of mental health at DeWitt Army Community Hospital in Fort Belvoir, Va., says she’s treated several St. Elizabeths employees in the last 10 years for depression and “super anxiety”ailments that many of those patients attribute to working under Wick. “There have been quite a few who have come here because they’ve had a negative experience with her,” says Prasanna. “Nobody knew we were all receiving treatment until we started bumping into each other,” says another former employee, Dr. Leticia Ubiñas.
What Ubiñas and her anxiety-ridden co-workers may have really bumped into is one of the District’s few no-nonsense managers. When Wick’s subordinates fall behind, she pushes them. When they complain, she reprimands them. When they don’t improve, she fires them. It’s a new management style for most District employees, and they don’t know how to respond.
“She is very tough and very demanding. She expects people to perform,” says Dr. Robert Keisling, acting director of clinical and professional services at D.C. General’s Emergency Psychiatric Response Division. “She has fired some people, there’s no doubt about that. And clearly some are not too happy.”
St. Elizabeths brass are now investigating employees’ complaints against Wickfor the second time since 1993.
Jeannette Wick is not your typical tyrant. She’s petite, blond, and bubbly. Last year, she gained media attention as John Hinckley Jr.’s new obsession and thereby drew comparisons to Jodie Foster. Superiors praise her efficiency and recount awards she’s won for service and management. But employees say it’s all part of her act.
“Basically, I kind of like Jeannette Wick. She’s charming,” admits Grant Schofield, a former occupational therapist at the hospital. “She’s the only person [who], while burying rusty axes in your head, would charm you at the same time.”
But few former employees care to comment on Wick’s charming side. To hear some tell it, Wick is a regular Nurse Ratched, driving her employees madder than the patients they’re treating. “I hold Jeannette Wick responsible for ruining my career,” says Ubiñas. “I can laugh about this now. But for a long time, I didn’t believe Hell existed. But after Jeannette Wick, I believe in wickedness.”
So does Rebekah McPherson, who worked under Wick as a clinical social worker from 1992 to 1993. McPherson says her year under Wick’s lash was so horrific that when she left St. Elizabeths, she had to sign a document saying she was neither suicidal nor homicidal. “The psychological impact of what Jeannette Wick does to people is incredible,” says McPherson, who has also visited with Dr. Prasanna.
McPherson’s voice cracks when she talks about her time at St. Elizabeths. Wick, she says, started harassing her after she complained about a conflict with another supervisor. According to McPherson, Wick removed her from her position as a clinical social worker and transferred her to the pharmacy, where she was charged with sorting pills into bottles. The transfer, McPherson claims, was a deliberate attempt by Wick to keep her from advancing in her career.
McPherson also alleges Wick had a hand in her discharge in the fall of 1993. She was released on the grounds that she had two unsatisfactory evaluations. But McPherson claims she only had one and that Wick falsified the second document. “I believe she was sabotaging my efforts to be removed from the pharmacy and to go to another agency,” McPherson says.
Wick declined repeated requests for an interview on the gripes articulated by McPherson and other disgruntled employees for this story. In a faxed letter, she wrote that she can’t discuss issues that involve past or present employees in a public forum. Dr. Scott Nelson, current receiver of the D.C. Commission on Mental Health Services (CMHS), says that he, too, can’t comment on specific personnel issues. This winter, a handful of former employees sent a letter to the receiver’s office detailing their complaints against Wick. “The situation is under review,” says Nelson.
There’s a lot to reviewcharges ranging from the petty to the extreme from former St. Elizabeths workers all over the country. One former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, says Wick purposely made her change her lunch hour so that she couldn’t eat with her friends. And Soeken goes as far as to say that Wick planted fraudulent phone messages in his office so that it would appear he was attending to personal matters or patients from his private practice while at
“This is just craziness,” says Johnny Allem, CMHS director of operations, when told of some of the allegations.
Some of the gripes have the ring of a second-grade classroom. Former employees have questioned Wick’s reprimands for being late or falling behind in work. They often don’t deny the charges but say Wick overlooked extenuating circumstances or was too harsh with her reprimands. Superiors, of course, cite the reprimands as proof that Wick is just doing her job, and doing it well.
Maybe too well for some employees, says Verna E. Clayborne, who worked on an internal Department of Human Services probe conducted in 1993. Following complaints by Soeken and other employees that Wick was discriminating against them, the DHS’s office of Equal Employment Opportunity spent over a year interviewing approximately 50 employees about Wick’s management practices. Clayborne says she found evidence that some of Wick’s tactics were suspect, but hardly grounds for discrimination complaints. “I’m not going to tell you there was not some legitimacy in the allegations that were made. I will tell you they were not [discrimination] issues,” she says. “A lot of this is about style.”
Several of the complainants, adds Clayborne, had various “shortcomings” of their own. “Some of these employees were not doing their jobs,” she says. “They paint a picture that’s very one-sided. I’m not saying there isn’t some truth to these allegations. I’m simply telling you that, in all fairness, there really is a flip side to this coin.”
The turmoil surrounding Wick has upset a mental health system that has been struggling to reinvent itself for over two decades. In 1975, U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. ordered the city to expand community-based services to limit unnecessary incarceration of the 10,000 mentally ill in D.C., many of whom often end up in jails when services aren’t available. Robinson got tired of waiting for the prescribed changes and last year put the troubled $180 million system into receivership. “We’re in the process of clarifying expectations of people’s work and holding them accountable,” says receiver Nelson. “We’re trying to make sure taxpayers receive a good day’s work for a good day’s pay.”
Reform was expected to begin with St. Elizabeths, which accounts for about two-thirds of the commission’s budget and serves 800 patients on its 326-acre campus in Southeast. It’s no wonder, then, that CMHS execs applaud Wick, who has consolidated functions and saved the District money, often by cutting positions. “She’s had to fire some people and discipline others,” says D.C. General’s Keisling.
The scarred employees don’t trust the ongoing DHS probe to censure Wick, so they’ve sought other recourse. Lawyer JePhunneh Lawrence is convinced that some of Wick’s actions “border on criminal activity,” and is working with a group of employees to file a class-action suit in U.S. District Court. Lawrence claims that Wick encouraged employees to seek psychiatric care in an attempt to discredit their complaints. “I just think there’s a lot of mind games going on over there.”
Clayborne says her investigation did discover discrepancies in employee evaluations. In some cases, Clayborne says, a supervisor may have praised an employee in the initial evaluation, but those positive comments may not have shown up on the final document. “If Ms. Wick felt something different, that’s what showed up on the evaluation,” says Clayborne.
In other words, Wick used performance evaluations to actually evaluate performancenot to grease an indiscriminate promotion process.
“I don’t know how much you know about the District government, but there’s a big problem with the work force, with productivity,” says Keisling. “There was a perception that people can’t be fired. Jeannette is not that kind of manager. She will go after people if they’re not doing