Massachusetts tends to consider itself a progressive state but it contains what is believed to be the only youth center in the country where powerful electric shocks are given to disabled children to control their behavior. And activists are demanding that the Legislature stops allowing a practice the United Nations has deemed torture.
Dozens of protesters came to the State House Saturday afternoon to urge the House to pass an amendment forbidding the use of aversive therapies. The Senate approved two versions of the ban, attached to a budget bill, the previous week.
One amendment seeks an outright ban on the practice and the other would codify regulations implemented in October by the Patrick Administration. These regulations allow the use of electric shocks for children who entered the center before Sept. 1 and for whom the shocks are part of a court-ordered treatment plan.
The practice has received national – and international – attention in recent weeks after a former teacher's assistant at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton organized an online petition with Change.org demanding that Massachusetts outlaw the practice of shocking kids. As of Monday afternoon, 241,265 people had signed it; over 9,000 of those are from Massachusetts.
"Rather than shocking students for only severe behaviors, student behavior plans at JRC dictated that we shock certain students for even the most minor of behavioral issues like closing their eyes for 15 seconds while sitting at the desk, pulling apart a loose piece of thread, tearing an empty used paper cup, or for standing up and raising a hand to ask to go to the bathroom," Gregory Miller, the former assistant who says he regrets participating in the shock treatment, wrote in the petition.
Miller was among the approximately 70 demonstrators at the State House Saturday. He was joined by Sen. Brian Joyce (D-Milton), who has spearheaded the Senate effort over the past 12 years to ban the use of aversive therapies. During that time, the Senate has passed amendments banning their use but these measures they have not made it into the House versions of the budget. (Read Canton Patch's in-depth live interview Friday with Sen. Joyce about his efforts to stop aversive therapies.)
The next step in the process is for a Conference Committee comprised of three representatives and three senators to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate budgets and send a unified version to both chambers by the end of June for passage.
On Monday, it was announced that the Conference Committee will include Sen. Stephen M. Brewer (D-Barre), Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster), Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield), Rep. Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill), Rep. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington) and Rep. Viriato Manuel deMacedo (R-Plymouth).
And Sunday the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, called for a federal investigation into the Judge Rotenberg Center. His predecesor called what is happening at the JRC "torture."
'I regret having participated'
According to Jonathan Perri of Change.org, Miller decided to start the petition after a video of 18-year-old Andre McCollins being shocked in 2002 after refusing to take off his coat was made public by court order, over the opposition of the center. The disturbing video also shows McCollins being strapped to a board for seven hours during which time he received 31 electric shocks by remote control. McCollins needed to receive medical treatment for serious burns to the skin as a result of the shocks. The strength of the shocks is 10 times that of a stun gun, according to a family lawyer.
Andre's mother, Cheryl McCollins of Brooklyn, has said that she did not know the center was torturing her son. McCollins has been a central figure in the fight to ban the use of aversive therapies and was among the protesters on Beacon Hill Saturday.
But officials at the Judge Rotenberg Center have defended the use of shock treatments, saying that they are safe, effective means of curbing violent behaviors.
Joyce, however, has a different take on why the center has worked to thwart legal efforts to regulate their methods. "I am quite certain that the extraordinary sums of money involved play a significant role in the JRC's efforts to stop our actions to protect these children. This facility that started as a summer day school for six children in Rhode Island in 1971, grew to an $18 million operation by 2000. By 2006, revenues exceeded $56 million," he told Patch.