Neighbors of Carrier Clinic — an inpatient psychiatric and substance abuse treatment center in Belle Mead — sounded an alarm, bringing their concerns about the increasing number of escapees to Montgomery Township Committee at its first meeting of the year.
In response, Carrier CEO promises to work with Montgomery Township leaders and residents to build a fence. Meeting dates will be announced.
Seven Montgomery residents lined-up and, one-by one, said they lay awake at night speculating over dangers to the community after a number of patients have wandered around Belle Mead after eloping from the facility. Carrier Clinic provides short-term, acute care hospitalization for psychiatric illness and substance abuse for youths ages 12 to 18, as well as treatment and services for adults 18 and up.
The Nixle alert system broadcasted messages about escapee patients who the police were looking for around Montgomery and at times, in the woods or on residents’ properties, throughout December, including the day after Christmas, and into January.
A few times, residents said, Nixle alerts were sent out up to an hour after cops showed up at their front doors to search their properties and inform residents of the situations.
Jim Hunt has lived on a family farm on Route 601, a quarter-mile from Carrier Clinic, for 71 years. He says up until recently the patients wandering out from Carrier had never really become a reason for concern for him and his neighbors … until now.
“It’s just that they’ve been getting out more and more and I am just wondering what’s going on? Our police do a really good job at trying to corral them up, but why are they getting out in the last three weeks?," Hunt asked the Township Committee members.
"When I look out my window and I see police cars, I actually feel good because I know police are out doing their job and I know what they’re looking for," he said. "People have gotten out and stolen cars. I along with the rest of the neighbors want to get the message out that security has to be improved. They gotta do something to keep the patients in."
Hunt added that he makes sure to secure all tools and equipment on his farm.
Christopher Lamorticella and his wife Diane live on Broadway in Belle Mead. They stood together in front of the committee to speak about the issue of Carrier patients who escape and the police being summoned to their neighborhood so routinely. Hunt told the committee that some neighbors have small children, and the Lamorticellas are a family that shared the same concern over residential safety.
“I have lived here for 22 years and if I saw somebody looking for an escaped individual from Carrier, it would be about once in three years and that person would be a Carrier staff member looking for them," Christopher Lamorticella said. "Within the last week I’ve had two visits from the police to search inside my garage, looking for missing people."
"It is getting a little unnerving to say the least," he said. "I don’t think most of the folks at Carrier are dangerous but there is a concern over crimes of opportunity.” He added that vandalism was possible, and since he is a hunter with his guns properly secured and locked away in his home, there is added potential for a problem if someone broke in and could access those guns.
His wife Diane Lang-Lamorticella added that Montgomery police came to her front door to search for the escapees, and because officers spent time out on these calls and looking in the vicinity, “maybe Carrier should reimburse the township for tying up our police officers.” She detailed some of the history of alarming incidents.
“About two years ago on the corner of Pleasant View and Route 601 there was a male that police were looking for with a bad history of some sort. A team of police were looking for him throughout that afternoon, coordinated with Somerset County Sheriff’s officers, Hillsborough police, and Montgomery police all searching in the woods on the corner," Lang-Lamorticella said.
"Now, we just begin and end Christmas break time with two missing male juveniles and then we have two missing female juveniles," she said. "Maybe it is about time Carrier add security staff or maybe they should call up York Fence (company) like I did. At least I have a fence that keeps my dog in the yard, so maybe it’s time they put up a fence since they can’t keep the people on their campus.”
Recent Nixle Alerts Related to Carrier Clinic
On January 1 at 9:17 pm a Nixle alert sent notice that two missing Hispanic female juveniles, “runaways” ages 16 and 17, “had been located by the MTPD and returned to Carrier Clinic.” The initial Nixle alert that the two young women were missing in the area was sent out at 2:34 that afternoon.
On December 26, a Nixle alert from the MTPD sent out at 4:33 pm stated “police looking for a 5-foot-3 black male wearing all black and a 5-foot-8 Hispanic male wearing a grey hoodie: they walked away from Carrier.”
Another alert broadcast on December 28 at 9 pm clarified that situation, “CANCEL Nixle for missing individuals from Carrier 12/26/18 — one individual was located and second is not in our area.”
Lang-Lamorticella told the committee a person eloping from Carrier could be in danger or a danger. One danger, she mentioned, is that a patient eloping from Carrier could get hit by a car on the dark Route 601, on which the clinic is located.
"Is one of the people who elope from Carrier going to need to get hit by one of the drivers who go 65 or more in a 50 mph zone on Route 601 before something is done?," she asked committee members. "It is a matter of security for people who are eloping from Carrier, and a matter of security for us who live there,” she said.
Montgomery Township Administrator Donato Nieman told residents that issues with people wandering off from the Carrier Clinic grounds has been an ongoing and long-standing concern, even preceding his beginning in township operations in the year 2000.
“We’ve been working with Carrier Clinic; they have recently been acquired by Hackensack Meridian Health (New Jersey’s largest health network) so we’re waiting to find out whether or not that will make a difference. This has been an ongoing relationship the police department has with Carrier to get them to better control their residents. Most of them want to get drugs or alcohol because that is why they’re in Carrier, whether they were forced into recovery programs or they went voluntarily ... Over the years we’ve tried working with Carrier to improve security there. But there is no argument because people escape and we are trying to ensure that that doesn’t happen,” Nieman said.
Montgomery Police Lieutenant Kurt Rock, a 25-year veteran of the force, was present for the part of the January 3 meeting when residents spoke about Carrier. He explained that the facility does have a small security force there and the police are regularly in touch with them.
In early January, NJBiz reported that the Meridian Health and Carrier Clinic deal was a merger that includes a plan for a $25 million investment in facilities. Today Carrier Clinic’s campus includes a licensed 297-bed hospital and the Blake Recovery Center, a licensed 40-bed inpatient and outpatient detox and recovery facility.
Broadway resident Sharon Hague has lived near Carrier since 1975. She said one outcome of the merger with Meridian Health, is that Carrier could become a bigger facility, servicing even more people on-site.
Hague told the committee she agrees with Carrier Clinic building a fence. She said drug addicts who are not progressed far with recovery can break out and they’d pose a threat in town “if they came looking for stuff.”
“There’s no reason why a fence can’t be put up at Carrier," Hague said. "I know it isn’t going to look pretty but unfortunately you have got dangerous people."
"I also understand that if patients voluntarily go in then they can voluntarily go out," Hague said. "But somebody at the facility has to be responsible for the whereabouts. And with our police, if they are out at Carrier, then that is taking away safety and time to attend to the rest of the township. I don’t think it is necessary, or the town should be reimbursed, somehow, some way.”
Carrier Clinic to Build a Fence to Deter Elopement of Patients
The process ahead was outlined in a statement for The Montgomery News from Donald Parker, president of Hackensack Meridian Health Carrier Clinic, sent via email on January 8:
“Carrier Clinic is aware of the comments from the public at the Montgomery Township meeting on January 3. Carrier is currently working on a fencing system that will deter elopement of patients. We will be presenting our plan to the township as soon as our design is completed. We will also offer our neighbors an opportunity to discuss their concerns and review our plans. Our security department will participate in those meetings to explain how we work with the Montgomery Police Department and other local organizations to promote the safety of the community we are a part of as well as serve our patients. We will publish the location, date, and time to fully engage the community in participating in our planning process.”
Carrier Clinic is set on a 100-plus acre site at the foothills of the Sourland Mountains in the Belle Mead section of Montgomery Township. The clinic provides inpatient and outpatient services for psychiatric treatment, Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatment, and drug abuse addiction.
The clinic has 1,100 employees, and includes an inpatient psychiatric hospital, a detoxification and rehabilitation center, an adolescent residential facility, and a fully-accredited middle and high school for students classified as emotionally disturbed.