WINSLOW – Every three weeks or so, Carol Foster drives from her Pennsauken apartment to see her 53-year-old son at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital.
For 17 years, during their supervised visits, the pair shared his favorite takeout: stromboli, a slice of pizza or maybe shrimp lo mein and boneless ribs. She often shopped for him, and brought back his laundry from the cleaners, pressed and packaged in plastic.
But she can’t do that anymore.
As of Jan. 1, visitors at New Jersey’s state psychiatric hospitals can no longer bring in food, beverages or items to patients. The new policy also prohibits visitors from laundering patients’ clothing outside the hospitals, due to “infection control issues.”
According to a letter addressed to visitors, Ancora will provide essential clothing, shoes and outerwear for patients, though families can make arrangements to bring in special items, like formal wear.
“It feels as if they’re being treated as prisoners instead of patients,” said Foster, who asked the Courier-Post to withhold her son’s name. “It’s a shame. How do they expect those people to get well if they’re being denied basic human rights?”
The security measures were put into place by hospital administrators to protect patients and staff, said Ellen Lovejoy, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services. No specific incident led up to the change, she added. She would not say what kind of clothing is issued.
Such restrictions are “tone deaf” and were instituted without consulting patients or their families, said Phillip Lubitz, chairman of the state’s Behavioral Health Planning Council and associate director of NAMI New Jersey.
“I’m sure that the responsible administrator would not put up with this if their own family members were involved,” Lubitz said.
State hospitals have patient advocates on staff to receive complaints from patients and families, and all policies are reviewed by the hospital’s executive leadership, Lovejoy said. Policies are also discussed by the hospital’s patient government, she said. Lovejoy did not answer questions about when Ancora’s board of trustees last met or whether it had a working quorum. There are four vacancies on the seven-member board, according to the state’s website.
Lubitz raised complaints to officials at the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services. He said the restrictions against families washing their loved ones’ laundry at home was particularly galling, because the loss and theft of clothing within the institution has been a problem for decades.
“It is disappointing that (the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services) bypassed the many opportunities it has for vetting proposed hospital policies with those who are affected,” Lubitz said in an email to the Courier-Post. “This seems to be a step back into an earlier era of monolithic institutions.”
Anthony Davis, executive director of Mental Health Association in Southwestern New Jersey, said the ban is upsetting to family members and could affect patients’ treatment.
“It raises more questions and concerns than I think it resolves,” Davis said. “I want to be fair. I’m sure there are legitimate concerns about the safety of staff and residents that these policies are designed to address. As they are implemented, they may not get the benefits they anticipated.”
Families can deposit money into patients’ accounts, so they can buy items like deodorant, shampoo and pens at a store within the hospital using a cashless system, according to the letter. Davis said he was concerned about how much those items will cost patients.
“I doubt seriously it’s going to be less than market price, which means it’s costing the family member more to care for their loved one,” Davis said.
Foster hopes she will still be able to make her son’s favorite home-cooked meals when she reserves a few hours at Ancora’s guest house to celebrate holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas. This winter, she made him turkey and stuffing, and roast beef with sweet potatoes. She also brought presents. As with every visit, her items were searched by security personnel.
During their visit last week, her son brought a deck of cards so they could play rummy. Neither one of them is happy with the new policy.
“It dehumanizes them, come on!” Foster said, as she held back tears. “It’s a shame. My heart aches for them.”
As of October, there were 410 patients at Ancora, according to the most recent census data published by the state. The state hospital plans to hold a meeting for patients’ families on Jan. 28.