Monday, March 1, 2010
Feds to Probe Torture School in Canton, Mass.

Some readers might already be familiar with the ongoing saga of the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts. This is the place where children with serious behavioral problems, autism, and mental disabilities are subjected to painful electric shocks, food deprivation, and other forms of morally questionable treatment, ostensibly in order to cure them of their bad behaviors. There have been some excellent, excellent exposes on this place done by Mother Jones magazine, and a terrific treatment in Boston Magazine.
It seems that Federal officials are looking afresh into the center’s activities, pursuant to their jurisdiction under the Americans with Disabilities Act. State Senator Brian Joyce has been trying for years to ban the center’s most disturbing practice, the administering of electric shocks by way of a device called a Graduated Electronic Decelerator, which sounds like something from a science fiction/horror movie.
For those who might have seen the movie or read the book “A Clockwork Orange”, the principle behind the Rotenberg Center is almost exactly the same as that which was behind fictional Alexander DeLarge’s treatment. The only difference is that Alex was a violent and somewhat intelligent criminal who voluntarily chose to undergo the Ludovico Technique, while most, if not all, of the children at the Rotenberg Center have been forced into the treatment by their parents or other guardians. Once admitted to the center, it’s as if these kids lose all their rights to be treated as human beings and disappear into a legal black hole.
The Rotenberg Center has been through several incarnations and has made the news periodically throughout the thirty years or so that it has been doing its thing. It used to be called the Behavior Research Institute, which was a moniker that, I think, more accurately reflected the status of its inmates (or, as the center itself would have us say, its “patients”) as unwilling guinea pigs in a Behaviorist Laboratory. One time was the death of a student by asphyxiation in 1987; another time was the awful death of a young woman at the center in 1990. Much more recently the Rotenberg center made the news when two residents were accidentally tortured with dozens of electric shocks when a prank caller, claiming to be an authority figure at the center, instructed staff to do so. I’ve met a couple of people who worked at the center at one time- the qualifications for employment appear to be little more than a willingness to follow orders and a less-than-robust conscience. It pays better than McDonald’s, from what I hear.
The center’s director, Matthew Israel, did not seem particularly interested in children, autism, or disabilities when he started a “utopian commune” in Arlington in 1967. But perhaps he found that children are easier to experiment on than adults, and the disabled children easiest of all. The biographical sketch that emerges from the Boston Magazine article suggests a cross between Dr. Marvin Candle from “Lost” and the self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh. Today earning more than $300,000 a year, Israel is apparently a friend and former classmate of Michael Dukakis, which was undoubtedly a beneficial arrangement when a variety of coalitions, activists, and a majority of state legislators were calling for the center’s closure back in the 1980’s.
In any event, my initial reaction to learning about the center was disgust and outrage. Despite hearing that some parents and former guests praise its methods, my initial appraisal has been unchanged. This operation has been going for thirty years, and despite the scandals and controversies there is apparently nothing in the peer-reviewed academic journals that validates its seemingly cruel and unusual tactics. Shouldn’t Dr. Israel bear the burden of proof that this stuff does more good than harm? State Representative Jeffery Sanchez’s nephew has been “treated” by the Center since he was a teenager- he is 32 now and anything but cured. How is Sanchez’s case really an argument for the Rotenberg Center’s effectiveness?
I remain horrified that this strange purgatory for the disabled exists in the United States at all, and positively perplexed that it could exist in Massachusetts, where our supposedly liberal sympathies and high level of education cause many of us to reject even the usage of minor forms of corporal punishment. Hopefully the Federal government will be able to do what Massachusetts officials have failed to accomplish, and shut down Dr. Israel’s bizarre experiment in torture as therapy.