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WESTWOOD

Public meeting March 5 on security at Westwood Lodge psychiatric facility

Westwood selectmen have called an urgent public meeting tomorrow to discuss what they say is the “long, distressing history’’ of security lapses at Westwood Lodge, an inpatient psychiatric hospital on Clapboardtree Street.

The forum was prompted by a pair of escapes on Jan. 21 and Feb. 8, and comes two weeks after state Department of Mental Health Commissioner Marcia Fowler lowered the maximum number of patients who may stay overnight at the facility from 89 to 75 while its security plan is reassessed. The hospital also provides outpatient psychiatric care.

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Escapes, termed by the state mental health agency as “elopements,’’ and violent incidents including physical and sexual assaults, are not new at Westwood Lodge, said Westwood Town Administrator Michael Jaillet.

“We have had enough for a long time,’’ Jaillet said. “And we have been trying to put the pressure on them for a lot of things.’’

Local officials said situations where patients escape from custody tax the resources of the municipalities in which the state facilities are located, and others surrounding them. Last week, for example, a suicidal Worcester State Hospital patient was discovered in Mendon at Southwick Zoo, five days after disappearing from the hospital. His escape forced an intense manhunt in each community where he was spotted, until he was found.

Westwood police and fire officials and others have been working with the hospital and its hired consultant for the past year on security concerns that involve internal controls, staff training, and the physical security of the facility’s buildings.

Officials have proposed a fence around the perimeter of the property, and plans are underway to install one - although some officials have questioned the effectiveness of such a barrier if someone really wants to get out. Until there is resolution, Police Chief William Chase has asked selectmen to close the town’s athletic field located in front of the hospital, for safety reasons. The field is used by a number of youth sports organizations.

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In a statement, a Department of Mental Health spokeswoman said that Westwood Lodge is making efforts to implement increased security and that the cap on patients will remain in place until the agency has completed its reassessment of the facility’s security plan and implemented any changes.

“We also recognize the concerns of the community as we work to balance public safety with the provision of care and treatment to individuals with mental illness within our communities,’’ spokeswoman Anna Chinappi said.

State Senator Michael Rush of Boston and state Representative Paul McMurtry of Dedham, who both represent Westwood, had asked the state to impose the population cap to raise the ratio of staff to patients and thus improve security at the facility, during the system review.

The two Democrats are expected to attend the meeting tomorrow, as are Fowler, who was named to head the state agency in February, and representatives of the hospital.

The town had formed the Westwood Lodge Task Force two decades ago to work on security concerns with hospital management, said selectmen chairman Patrick J. Ahearn. But despite assurances that things would improve, they haven’t, he said.

In a Feb. 14 letter to Fowler, Ahearn described a steady stream of issues that have caused “an inordinate drain’’ on the resources of public safety agencies not only in Westwood but also in surrounding communities and the state.

Ahearn cited several incidents in which patients have run away from the sprawling facility and either hid in, or burglarized, neighboring properties. Some residents were home at the time of the intrusions.

In one case, Ahearn said, a patient broke into a home and stole car keys, clothing, and money while the owners were sleeping. In another case, a patient entered a home while the family was at work and at school and smeared his feces over two newly constructed walls.

The hospital has also been the scene of “numerous and serious’’ physical and sexual assaults involving patients assaulting other patients and staff members, and instances of staff members sexually assaulting patients, Ahearn said.

Most recently, a patient allowed to go outside on Jan. 21 on a break for fresh air took off despite the presence of two staff members who were supposed to be supervising. The patient was later found under the back deck of a nearby home after a 90-minute search by all on-duty Westwood police officers, three state troopers, and an officer from an adjoining town.

On Feb. 8, a patient in one of the locked wards feigned pain, then assaulted a nurse, stole her access card, and made his escape, Ahearn wrote. State and local police, a canine unit, and a helicopter were called out. The intensive search ended when the patient was located at South Station.

“Unfortunately, the escapes of Jan. 21 and Feb. 8 are not isolated incidents but merely the latest in a long history of violations and indignities the neighbors of WLH have had to suffer,’’ Ahearn wrote. “Despite promises by the Lodge that security would improve, the most recent event demonstrates there have been insufficient improvements made to ensure the safety of our citizens.’’

A spokeswoman for Westwood Lodge did not respond to several requests for comment.

Tomorrow’s meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. at the Thurston Middle School cafeteria annex.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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