Tuesday, March 2, 2010
What's Wrong With Further Protections For Our Children?

With all due respect to my good friend Joe DeFelice, it’s clear from his August 7th edition of MAN ABOUT CANTON: “Senator Joyce is Wrong About JRC,” that he’s been suckered by the well-funded public relations machine of the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC). But Joe’s not alone. I was fooled at first, too.
Aversive therapy, also known as shock therapy, is the deliberate and controlled induction of some form of physiological state of shock (pain or discomfort) in an individual for the purpose of psychiatric treatment. Today, this practice is being used on children and adults at the JRC, a special needs school in Canton for students with conduct, behavior, emotional, and psychiatric problems, including students with autism.
Upon my first visit to JRC 11 years ago, I too was “enlightened” to their successes using aversive therapy. However, my view of the JRC rapidly changed upon further research into the center’s long and troubled existence. The JRC is the only school in the United States known to use electric shock punishment as a means of controlling violent or otherwise undesirable behaviors. Before turning to electric shock punishment, JRC used water squirts, pinching, spanking, “aromatic ammonia,” mechanical restraints, and helmets with visual screens and white noise masks to punish students.
In 1989, the JRC began using skin shocks. However, students began to adapt to the pain from the original shocking device, evidenced when shocks began to number close to 5,000 in one day with little effect. In response, the JRC created a more powerful machine to shock more locations on the body with stronger voltages and a shock that lasts ten times as long. The shocks are not “mini-shocks” as Joe described them, but rather intense electric pulses which, as a former employee testified, can send you to your knees in pain.
It’s not surprising that Joe and I (along with many others) were fooled by the JRC. They are a sophisticated, $56 million operation whose gross revenue has increased by almost $36 million in the last seven years, thanks, in large part, to a hefty $220,000 per year student tuition, paid largely with tax dollars. Since 2000, the JRC has spent approximately $4,740,416 on various legal and public relations services to convince visitors, officials and judges that the electric shocking of students is in the patients’ best interest. Never mind that this type of punishment, if inflicted upon people without disabilities, would be considered a violation of our Constitution’s 8th Amendment, which prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment on even the worst criminals, including murderers, rapists, and terrorists. Indeed, if we were practicing the sort of “treatment” permitted upon autistic children in Massachusetts, on our prisoners in Guantanamo, there would be world-wide outrage.
Beyond the smoke and mirrors there lies a lengthy trail of disturbing practices and incidents. Since its founding, the JRC has had six children die while in its care. In 2006, the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure fined the JRC for falsely identifying 14 staff members as “psychologists” when they were unlicensed. A 2007 article in Mother Jones magazine detailed how employees were encouraged to use the element of “surprise” when shocking students so the students couldn’t brace themselves for the pain and that shocks were given for minor behaviors such as swearing, nagging, or failing to keep a neat appearance. Last August, a prank phone call to a JRC facility resulted in the staff shocking three students while acting on false orders. One young man was shocked 77 times in less than an hour, sometimes while restrained, despite his assertions that he was having trouble breathing. Of the eight staff members present the night of the prank phone call, the only person to repeatedly question the validity of the call was the student who would later be tied down and shocked. Three state agencies investigated this incident and all cited evidence of severe abuse and neglect. How many more incidents will need to occur before we provide meaningful protection for our children?
In his column, Joe suggests that I am not an expert in the field. And while he is correct, he fails to mention that my views are supported by many who are. My research has consisted of hundreds of hours meeting with disability advocates, behavior analysts, psychologists, parents, and civil rights and human rights advocates. The legislation I filed this session to provide further oversight of aversive therapy was co-authored with Representative John Scibak, former director of psychology at Belchertown State School. An overwhelming majority state that JRC’s use of aversive therapy runs contrary to peer-reviewed research and is not an effective or safe form of long term behavior modification.
It is most interesting to note that none of JRC founder Matthew Israel’s work over the past 40 years has been peer reviewed, as is standard practice in the fields of science and medicine. He hasn’t published anything, allowed for public scrutiny, or taken the opportunity to justify his practices with quantified research. He cites only anecdotal evidence. And although numerous studies discredit the long-term use of shock therapy as an effective treatment, JRC continues to implement methodology virtually unchanged for over 35 years.
I still support an outright ban of aversive therapy. However, some have argued that there are cases — albeit rare — when it may be the only effective short-term treatment for self-injurious behaviors. Now, I recognize that we will not all agree whether the use of aversive therapy is ever appropriate. Nevertheless, we should all agree that government has a fundamental duty to protect vulnerable populations and that the disabled children and adults being subjected to this treatment deserve the highest level of protection we can provide. Anything less is not only unconscionable, it is just plain wrong.
Senator Brian A. Joyce (D-Milton) represents the town of Canton in the Massachusetts Senate as part of his Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth district.