Local, State Officials Address Westwood Lodge Concerns
Residents voiced their concerns in a public hearing Monday night at Thurston Middle School.
A new security fence, new legislation and additional locks are among the safety measures local and state officials are looking to implement at Westwood Lodge, residents learned at a public hearing Monday night.
The hearing, hosted by the Westwood Board of Selectmen, included discussion by Westwood Lodge CEO Greg Brownstein, State Sen. Mike Rush (D-West Roxbury), State Rep. Paul McMurtry (D-Dedham), and Massachusetts Department of Mental Health Commissioner Marcia Fowler.
The issue of security at Westwood Lodge is something the hospital's administration and Westwood officials have been working to improve for some time; specific safety evaluations began last year.
In the first part of the hearing, a packed Thurston Middle School cafeteria listened to an anxiety-filled 911 call from Westwood resident Debbie Zaza, who lives in the area of Westwood Lodge and who was directly affected by the incident in January.
A patient who escaped the facility made his way to Zaza's neighborhood, and eventually hid under her deck. The event was unnerving, she said.
"My concern was the danger level," Zaza told the crowd Monday, commending Westwood Police for their efforts to help locate and detain the patient. "This could have been a tragedy. I will never feel safe there again. I feel that I have been robbed of that feeling of security."
Other residents, many of whom live in the vicinity of the hospital, voiced concern over the danger level of patients, the safety of patients and staff and an additional lock system, among others issues.
Resident Bill Schroder, a longtime member of the Westwood Lodge Task Force, addressed continuous changes in administration at the hospital, as well as how the staff is trained and the actual design of the building, which was orginially meant to serve as a hunting lodge before being used as a mental health facility in the 1950s.
"It's not designed to be a very secure facility," he said. "There are quite a few areas that we could address."
Selectmen Clerk Nancy Hyde, who also lives near Westwood Lodge, spoke on Monday, and reiterated the concerns of residents.
As an added security measure, she asked that an opt-in reverse 911 call system be set up for residents in the event another patient escapes and they wish to be notified, regardless of time of night.
"I think what we're all looking for is a sense of security in our own homes, in our own yards," Hyde said. "I'm not finding it right now. I'm not getting that sense."
Concerns Addressed, Safety Plan in Place
In mid-February, the Department of Mental Health worked with Westwood Lodge officials to implement a cap to the number of patients that could be housed at the facility to 75 (the building comprises 89 patient beds). The department lifted the cap after five days in response to the facility's presentation and implementation of a comprehensive safety plan.
"We started working with the facility to address these concerns," Fowler said Monday night. "We'll continue to work with the facility, work with the town, work with the representatives to ensure the appropriate level of care is being provided. We have a great deal of confidence in Greg Brownstein; we think he's done an incredible job."
Brownstein elaborated on the safety measures that are being implemented, the most immediate of which is a security fence to be installed at the facility.
"This is a large scale project that's going to take great resources," Brownstein said. "We are committed to it."
The fence project will be awarded to a bidder on Tuesday, he added, and the construction will be such that the fence will be as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Brownstein said he will look to apply for a building permit this week.
"I hope to have this fence up in two months, beginning to completion, depending on long it takes the companies to get the supplies," he said. "This will significantly decreases the possibility of elopements."
He added, however, that it wouldn't completely rid the risk of escapes.
"I can't stand up here and promise you no one will ever elope from the facility again," Brownstein said. "What we're going to pledge to you is we're going to continue to make the improvements that have been outlined. We're going to put up the fence and do whatever else we need to make it a secure environment."
A "triple lock" system, he added, was installed to the exterior doors of the facility following the February incident, which involved a patient stealing a swipe-card key to escape the building before fleeing and ending up at Boston's South Station.
Meanwhile, Rush and McMurtry both pledged to work towards improving legislation that would better reflect the needs of mental health facilities that have evolved over the years, not just in Westwood, but throughout the state. Rush stated that other communities, such as Peabody and Brookline, have dealt with similar issues and concerns as those present in Westwood.
"When a patient escapes, safety is compromised, not only for the public and the patient, but also with the resources in town," Rush said. "Things have changed, and we need to have laws that reflect the changes moving forward."
Said McMurtry, "We do stand at the ready to take any and all legislative action necessary that will protect the safety and security of this community. We will continue to keep public safety as our number one priority, and we will continue to work with local officials, as well as Commissioner Fowler and Westwood Lodge, until our goal is achieved."
Westwood Lodge Task Force
Twenty years ago, Westwood officials organized the Westwood Lodge Task Force in response to an incient involving an escaped patient from the hospital.
The group, which comprises local and state officials and Westwood Lodge administrators, has since worked to implement and oversee security.
"It's gotten to a point where the frustration level of all those who are involved is such that we really have to resolve it," Jaillet said. "We've made progress, but we've never quite gotten to where we need to get to."
Since the inception of the task force, Westwood Lodge has cycled through a number of administration changes, and Jaillet noted that when the task force intially formed, officials at the hospital avoided having discussions about patient escapes or other safety issues.
He clarified, though, that more recent management, including Brownstein, have worked diligently to address the concerns of officials and residents.
Officials vowed to continue to work for the safety of residents, as well as patients and staff at the hospital, and have noted that despite the recent incidents in 2012, the number of patient escapes has reduced dramatically in recent years.
The Westwood Lodge Task Force meets monthly to address the security concerns, and Ahearn noted Monday that moving forward, officials will make the meetings' minutes available on the town's website for public viewing.
Those who are interested in joining the task force or learning more about what is discussed are encouraged to contact Town Administrator Mike Jaillet.