The Boston Globe defends the Judge Rotenberg Center

12 Mar

The United States Department of Justice has opened an investigation on the Judge Rotenberg Center. The investigation is to determine whether certain methods of the JRC violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

An Op-ed piece in the Boston Globe defended the JRC

Shocking truths
The Rotenberg Center’s methods are undoubtedly unorthodox. But they work.
by Lawrence Harmon

You can read the article at the Boston Globe site. Here is the final paragraph:

THE JUDGE Rotenberg Center in Canton, which stands alone in its use of painful skin shocks to eradicate self-mutilation and sudden assault, is a storehouse of ethical and medical dilemmas. But it’s no shock – and no shame – that the parents of some autistic and mentally retarded children embrace this controversial school.

There are some very impassioned comments after the article. I won’t quote the JRC parents who posted without permission, but I would encourage you to read the comments.

One comment is by Nancy Weiss, who worked with the coalition of disability advocacy groups that filed the complaint against JRC is below:

The Judge Rotenberg Center likes to make the point that there are no other options for people with severe, dangerous behaviors, however not only are there people just like the people at the Judge Rotenberg Center who are being supported humanely and effectively all over the United States; there are people who were at the Judge Rotenberg Center who are doing wonderfully with positive behavior supports in community settings across the country. These are people who JRC warned would never make it outside of their center, people they said would need to be hooked to the shock devices for life, people who were moved in spite of the Judge Rotenberg Center’s dire warnings that they would be violent and dangerous. As I said to Mr. Harmon in a lengthy conversation prior to his writing his column, logic tells us that the 193 people at JRC can’t be the only people in the country with behaviors this severe. I’m sorry he didn’t take me up on the contacts I provided him so he could learn how people with behaviors just as severe are supported successfully without resorting to painful methods.

The Judge Rotenberg Center would like visitors to believe that painful electric shocks are used only infrequently and only for the kinds of extreme behaviors Harmon lists in his article: eye gouging, head banging and the like – but a New York State report found students as young as nine years old subjected to sudden, painful, repeated electric shocks for such harmless behaviors as “refusing to follow staff directions”, “failing to maintain a neat appearance”, “stopping work for more than ten seconds”, “getting out of seat”. “interrupting others”, “nagging”, “swearing”, “whispering” and “slouching in chair”, and “moving conversation away from staff..” The Boston Globe itself reported on the testimony of former employees who spoke about a student who received as many as 350 shocks in one day, a figure the Globe reported was confirmed by the school. That Globe article reported a former employee to testify, “the shock is more painful than described by school officials. I got hit accidentally on my thumb and I had a tingling up to my elbow, on the inner part of my arm, I would say for four hours. I was saying I can’t believe these kids can do this. My hand was shaking. I wanted to go home, that’s how bad it was.”1

The director of the Judge Rotenberg Center testified at a Massachusetts legislative hearing that one student received 5,300 electric shocks in one day. In his testimony, he stated that over a 24-hour period, this student, a teenager who weighed only 52 pounds, was strapped to a board and subjected to an average of one shock every 16 seconds.2 A 2007 New York Times article notes, “a former teacher from the school …said he had seen children scream and writhe on the floor from the shock.” The Times article also speaks to how painful the shocks are, “Technically, the lowest shock given by Rotenberg is roughly twice what pain researchers have said is tolerable for most humans, said James Eason, a professor of biomedical engineering at Washington and Lee University”.3 And, even more frightening, all of the statements above were made before JRC came out with its newest shock device – the GED-4 which, according to a 2006 Boston Globe article, “deliver(s) 45 milliampere shocks — 4 1/2 times stronger than the standard shocks” According to that article, ”Greg Miller, a former teacher’s assistant for more than three years, said one boy with autism was shocked by the higher-powered device so often that he had ‘burn scabs all over his torso, legs, and arms,’ forcing nurses to remove the electrodes for weeks so that his skin could heal”

Just a bee sting, used only occasionally in the most extreme circumstances? Harmon may have bought this but the facts don’t support it.

Harmon seems to think that these practices are OK because they are approved by parents and a probate judge. Let’s be clear that the Judge Rotenberg Center is a lucrative business. On their 2008 IRS forms (the most recent ones publicly available) JRC reported $390,301 in compensation for their Director. The Center was so beholding to the Judge who approved all the aversive procedures for their students that when he died, they re-named their facility in his honor. The facility used to be called the Behavior Research Institute but advocates would ask, “where’s the research?” Yes, the courts approve these practices, but one wonders how much they know about humane, effective alternatives.

And, in terms of parents approving the electric shock? Just ask parents like Evelyn Nicholson. In 2006, The Boston Globe reported that, “Evelyn Nicholson initially approved the shocks, but said she changed her mind as her son became more desperate, complaining that the shocks knocked him to the floor. Previously, she said, ‘I was advised that the shock . . . felt like a small pinch,’ and that the devices were rarely used.” Nicholson, like numbers of parents, when they found out what was being done to their sons and daughters, told JRC that they did not have their permission to use painful procedures on their kids and were told that if permission for the shock was not given they could come and take their son or daughter home. Parents giving permission? Not with any element of the free will that the term ‘permission’ usually implies.

Harmon speaks of other schools – schools he was told kids like these might be at if not for the Judge Rotenberg Center; schools where these kinds of students would instead be subjected to mechanical restraints. That might make a reader think that the Judge Rotenberg Center doesn’t use these restrictive techniques. The New York State investigational report on JRC states, “With mechanical movement limitation the student is strapped into/onto some form of physical apparatus. For example, a four-point platform board designed specifically for this purpose; or a helmet with thick padding and narrow facial grid that reduces sensory stimuli to the ears and eyes. Another form of mechanical restraint occurs when the student is in a five-point restraint in a chair. Students may be restrained for extensive periods of time (e.g., hours or intermittently for days) when restraint is used as a punishing consequence. Many students are required to carry their own “restraint bag” in which the restraint straps are contained.”4 The same report notes, “Some of these students were observed to be fully restrained in restraint chairs and wearing movement limiting helmets. One student left the school building in full restraint (hands and feet restrained with Velcro straps in a restraint chair), clearly agitated and upset, and returned the following morning carried to the conference room fully restrained in what appeared to be the same chair.”5

When I spoke to Mr. Harmon he seemed particularly swayed by the video called “Before and After” that almost every visitor sees. A 2007 Mother Jones article described the “before” footage shot in 1977, “An 11-year-old girl named Caroline arrives at the school strapped down onto a stretcher, her head encased in a helmet. In the next shot, free from restraints, she crouches down and tries to smash her helmeted head against the floor.” The Mother Jones reporter goes on to say, “Considering how compelling the “After” footage is, I am surprised to learn that five of the six children featured in it are still here. ‘This is Caroline,’ one of my escorts says an hour or two later as we walk down a corridor. Without an introduction, I would not have known. Caroline, 39, slumps forward in a wheelchair, her fists balled up, head covered by a red helmet. ‘Blow me a kiss, Caroline,’ Israel says. She doesn’t respond.”

And here we have perhaps the most important point that Mr. Harmon missed. If these methods worked – if their inhumanity was justified by their success, you wouldn’t have students still there after 33 years. You wouldn’t need to continually develop devices that deliver a stronger and stronger shock or methods to spread the electrodes so the electrical current passes through more flesh for the purpose of assuring greater and greater amounts of pain. Positive behavioral approaches are proven to have more staying power; they give people tools that they can use for life and they help them to change dangerous behaviors in ways that value, enhance, and include people rather than through the use of methods that are coercive, controlling, and inhumane. While the “after” portion of the tape Mr. Harmon watched might have seemed compelling, did he ask why, if these methods worked, people are still there 33 years later, still hooked up to the devices that are touted as being so effective?

I’m sorry Harmon was taken in, as so many casual visitors before him have been. It’s easy to spend a few hours and accept what you’re being told at face value. It’s easy when you’re under deadline to buy into the belief that no alternatives exist. Mr. Harmon said he feels that the concerns of the 31 disability organizations that signed the letter that motivated the Department of Justice investigation seem “too pat.” I hope it is clear that these organizations did not take lightly the decision to sign this letter. These groups represent the major, mainstream developmental disability organizations in the country including the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, The Arc of the United States, Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy and 27 others which together represent the most respected researchers in the country.

No one should be deluded into thinking that Mr. Harmon’s visit to the Judge Rotenberg Center told the whole story. The Judge Rotenberg Center has a business to run; they are not going to tell a reporter that humane options exist, but the several hundred thousand professionals and advocates represented by the 31 disability organizations that called for the Department of Justice investigation, know full well that they do. And because they do, this treatment of our most vulnerable citizens should not be tolerated by a society grounded in a commitment to the ethical treatment of all people.

Nancy Weiss

March, 2010

I would make a simple statement: the Judge Rotenberg Center is paid with over $50M of taxpayer money. Why shouldn’t the taxpayers spend a little more money (and a little more than the few hours Mr. Harmon spent) to insure that the Center is within the laws? For all it’s clients. All the time.

3 Responses to “The Boston Globe defends the Judge Rotenberg Center”

  1. Monica March 12, 2010 at 13:35 #

    That is sickening to read. I don’t understand how anyone who knows what is done can think it is even remotely in the vicinity of being okay. Anyone.

  2. Anastassia Florine May 10, 2010 at 03:30 #

    Sensory deprivation is the worst thing ever, for everyone. In its most extreme form, it is called “death” and “hell”.

  3. Keith June 22, 2010 at 12:27 #

    Dear Readers,

    This is not remotely ok, there are treatments available, this barbaric treatment is not necessary.

    There are reasons behind every behavior no matter how bizarre. Self abuse may be a last resort to communicate distress at feeling trapped and imprisoned.

    We attempt to model an alternative approach, and could run our community on 0.1% of that $50m. It pains me that you can get paid to torture people, but finding funds to care for people is much harder.


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