AN AMERICAN state is being urged to stop a school using electric shocks to control pupils with autism and other developmental conditions.
A 260,000-signature petition was delivered to Massachusetts’ state legislature demanding it ends the use of “aversive therapy” at the Judge Rotenberg Centre (JRC) in Canton.
Campaigners claim children and young adults at the centre – dubbed the House of Horrors by the media – are subjected to skin shocks ten times more powerful than a police stun gun.
Three of its former staff members are among those leading the campaign, along with the mother of an autistic boy who was tied and shocked 31 times for refusing to take off his coat.
Recently released video of the 2002 incident involving 18-year-old Andre McCollins – which the JRC fought to suppress – has strengthened the campaign, recording the boy squealing in pain as a shock pulses through his body, dropping to the floor and screaming: “Help me.”
The UN Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, has said the treatment constitutes torture, but a US Justice Department investigation launched in 2010 is still to report, two years on.
JRC is the only institution in the world known to use the electric shock regime – meted out by a machine known as a Graduated Electronic Decelerator – deemed legal because JRC staff classify it as “therapy.”
“Massachusetts has failed to ban this practice, which has allowed the JRC to subject people with disabilities to torture in the name of treatment,” said a letter sent to Governor Deval Patrick from 28 organisations including the National Autism Association and Harvard Law School Project on Disability.
The JRC deals with students with behavioural, emotional and psychiatric problems, as well as development issues such as autism and advocates “aversive therapy” as an alternative to psychotropic drugs. It claims shocks are only administered to those with “violent, abusive or mutilating behaviours towards themselves or others” and that it yields “positive” outcomes.
“Our staff is committed to serving these students, when no other facility can or will,” it states, adding that aversive therapy is “only administered when other options have been exhausted and parents petition the court.”
Cheryl McCollins said she was never made aware aversive therapy included shock treatment until the incident with her son, for which she has since won damages. “I enrolled him at the JRC thinking he would be loved and taken care of. Instead, the staff tied my son to a four-point board and shocked him for seven hours because he refused to take off his coat,” she stated.
“He screamed for help the entire time and was admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital and diagnosed with catatonia post-traumatic stress disorder. He has never completely recovered.”
Gregory Miller, a former teaching assistant at the JRC, said that it was used on children for even minor behavioural issues, such as standing up in class.
Senator Brian Joyce is pushing a bill to outlaw the practice, which will be considered by the state House of Representatives this week after Senate approval.
The treatment, he said, was barbaric and based on “discredited pseudo-science”. Under new rules imposed last year, it is banned for individuals whose court-ordered “behaviour plans” were drawn up after September 2011, but the ban cannot be applied prior to that date.