By Quentin Davies
The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, Massachusetts, has long been criticized for its treatment of disabled children and adults. It has been condemned by the current and previous United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Torture, many disability rights groups, current Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and an FDA advisory panel (Hinman and Brown; Conaboy; Rothstein). It seems strange that the Judge Rotenberg Center is even still running, but it is, and is still using electric shocks as punishment for many of the disabled children and adults who currently live there. Through studying the Judge Rotenberg Center’s historical background, the current situation that exists at the facility, and how the Judge Rotenberg Center attempts to justify its actions, I hope to show that the Judge Rotenberg Center must be shut down, and to suggest policy changes that could be used to facilitate this goal.
Early History: Rhode Island and California
The Judge Rotenberg Center was established by Matthew Israel in 1971, as the Behavior Research Institute (BRI). During college, Matthew Israel had studied the behaviorist ideas of B.F. Skinner, and then began trying these ideas out on children, first on a 3-year-old child. This convinced Israel that he should start a school, so he founded the BRI, first in Providence, Rhode Island; in 1976, he opened another branch of BRI in Van Nuys, California. The institute began as a school whose students were mainly autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities. “Treatment” at the school consisted of many different forms of punishment, including spraying children in the face with water, forcing them to smell ammonia, pinching them, slapping them, subjecting them to painful muscle squeezes, spanking them, forcing them to put hot peppers on their tongues, and forcing them to wear a “white-noise helmet” that emitted static (Gonnerman, “School”). Israel did not believe in medication as therapy and therefore did not use this in students’ behavior plans. Due to the aversive therapies Israel and BRI staff were employing, both of the Behavior Research Institutes were heavily criticized very early on. The California Department of Health originally rejected the application to operate a group home as residential facilities for the California BRI facility, with harsh criticism of the aversive techniques Matthew Israel used, as well as for Israel not following California regulation. The department stated that “[t]here is unsatisfactory evidence that you are ‘reputable and responsible’ in relation to the operation of a licensed facility and/or that you have the ability to comply with applicable regulations. First, you have shown a disregard for the law by operating your program without obtaining a license from this Department to do so. […] Also, you are apparently engaging unlawfully in the practice of psychology without securing a California license” (Kahn). The Department of Health threatened to close the California branch. Parents of BRI students took over the facility and said they were running it as a co-op, forming a new corporation independent of the BRI in Rhode Island. BRI of California was able to receive a license for their group home, as well as one to use physical aversives, the only license allowing the use of physical aversives ever granted by the state of California (Kahn). Although the Rhode Island and California branches were formally separate, they were still linked. The organization in California still exists, now called Tobinworld. The BRI of California was revealed to have severely abused students, after the abuse of Christopher Hirsch was reported in the media. Christopher, who was 12 years old, had been subjected to severe pinching, and the skin on his feet was completely removed. Doctors described his body as not having any part that was not covered by a bruise (Kahn). After another student, 14-year-old Danny Aswad, died in the BRI of California facility while being strapped face down to a bed, the California Department of Social Services (DSS) compiled a 64-page accusation of the program (Gonnerman, “School”), much of which consisted of over 100 violations of the BRI’s license regulations (Bersinger). In 1982, the BRI of California facility settled with the state and was banned from using physical aversives within California (Gonnerman, “School”).
The BRI of Providence, Rhode Island met legal action from the states of Massachusetts and New York. In 1978, the state education department of New York, which sent approximately 15 students to the BRI of Providence, inspected the BRI facility and found it to not be in compliance with regulations. New York was sued by a group of parents whose children were at BRI, and lost the case in federal court. Later, New York was able to restrict the use of physical aversives on New York students to situations where students were likely to cause harm to themselves or others, and only after alternative techniques had been used (Gonnerman, “31 Shocks”).
The Massachusetts government also challenged the BRI of Providence’s treatment of children and adults within the facility, including within group homes in the state of Massachusetts that housed BRI students. Michael Avery, a licensing investigator for the Massachusetts Office for Children (OFC) spent seven months and 250 hours at the BRI facility, choosing to experience the aversives to which the disabled people at BRI were subjected to. Avery found many violations of regulations and abuse of disabled people within the facility. In 1985, the OFC investigation intensified after a 22-year-old autistic student, Vincent Milletich, died from a seizure after staff pushed his head between one staff member’s legs, handcuffed his hand, and forced him to wear a white noise helmet (Gonnerman, “School”). Avery learned about a change in the contingent-food program for students, finding that BRI had changed students’ food plans without informing the OFC. The program now required that some students earn their food through a reward and punishment system (Kahn). The Massachusetts Office for Children attempted to shut the program down through an emergency measure, charging that the BRI was endangering students through “food deprivation, excessive punishment, and disregard for regulatory licenses.” In a probate court in Bristol County, Judge Ernest Rotenberg ruled in BRI’s favor. Judge Rotenberg later presided over requests from BRI to approve aversive plans for students, and the center was named after him in 1994 (Cobb 1).
In 1990, five years after Vincent Milletich’s death, 19-year-old Linda Cornelison had a perforated stomach ulcer which was ignored by BRI staff for two days despite her expressions of pain. As Linda’s pain worsened, her expressions of pain began to be treated as behaviors to be punished. Between 3:52 and 8:00 pm, she was subjected to 56 physical aversives, before an ambulance was finally called. She died “seven years, two months and 88,719 aversives after she arrived in October 1984” (Cobb 15). Matthew Israel was cited for negligence in the death of Vincent Milletich, and an investigation of Linda Cornelison’s death, conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation, reported that the treatment of Linda was “inhumane beyond all reason” and violated “universal standards of human decency” (Cobb 3). Although the initial investigation found that there was not enough evidence to link the BRI to Linda’s death, in 1995, the BRI, by that time called the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), was found by a Massachusetts court to have exhibited negligence in Linda Cornelison’s death (Cobb 3).
After licensing for the facility was moved to the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH) and then to the Department of Mental Retardation (DMR), the DMR attempted to shut down BRI again. The Bristol County Probate court said that the state had violated the settlement agreement reached between the OFC and the BRI and stripped the DMR of licensing responsibilities for BRI (Ahern and Rosenthal 36-37).
A Move to Massachusetts and a Shift to Shock Aversives
In 1996, the Judge Rotenberg Center was relocated to its current location in Canton, Massachusetts. Around the same time, shock aversives were also becoming a more common punishment at the facility. This had begun in 1988, with the Self-Injurious Behavior Inhibiting System (SIBIS), which Matthew Israel had purchased and was using on some students. This device caused a shock of 2.02 milliamps lasting for 0.2 seconds (Gonnerman, “School”). Israel later, wanting a more powerful device, designed the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED), which can deliver a shock of 15.5 milliamps lasting up to 2 seconds, and then the GED-4 which subjects students to stronger shocks of 45.5 milliamps (Ahern and Rosenthal 8). Currently, the GED and GED-4 along with food deprivation and mechanical restraint, are the main forms of physical aversives used at the Judge Rotenberg Center.
After the move to Massachusetts, the Judge Rotenberg Center continued to be found in violation of regulations. In 2006, the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure revealed that the JRC had falsely claimed that members of its staff were licensed psychologists. Then, in 2007, an investigation was conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care after two boys were shocked, one 77 times and the other two dozen times, by staff after a JRC residence received a “prank” phone call from a former student pretending to be a staff member. This investigation found that “staff was physically abusive towards the residents; the staff was unable to provide for the safety and well-being of a child; staff lacked necessary training and experience; staff used poor judgment; staff failed to provide a safe environment; staff failed to follow policies regarding medical treatment; staff were neglectful in the care of residents” (Ahern and Rosenthal 39). Despite all this, the JRC was recertified for using Level III aversives in 2009.
In the very recent history of the JRC, a study by Mental Disability Rights International caused the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to investigate the Judge Rotenberg Center, declaring the treatment of disabled people by the JRC to be torture. The previous Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, urged the investigation, and said, “This is torture. Of course here they might say, but this is for a good purpose because it is for medical treatment. But even for a good purpose – because the same is to get from a terrorist information about a future attack, is a good purpose. To get from a criminal a confession is a good purpose. […] You cannot balance this. The prohibition of torture is absolute” (Hinman and Brown). After the investigation, the Judge Rotenberg Center was mentioned in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, written by current Special Rapporteur Juan E. Méndez. The report states that “the rights of the students of the JRC subjected to Level III Aversive Interventions by means of electric shock and physical means of restraints have been violated under the UN Convention against Torture and other international standards” (85). In 2011, Matthew Israel resigned his position as part of the probation agreement after Israel was indicted on counts of misleading a witness and destroying evidence that contained footage related to the investigation, involving the treatment of the two students after the prank phone call (Jrolf). Glenda Crookes took over Matthew Israel’s position after his resignation. Also in 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services (DDS) ruled that electric shock and other physical aversives cannot be used on new admissions to JRC (Markham). This was very important in that students who are admitted to JRC after this date can no longer be subjected to physical aversives, but the JRC still has many students who can be and are abused in this way.
In 2012, video of JRC staff restraining and shocking Andre McCollins for hours became public, leading to an increase in public outrage over the JRC’s treatment of disabled students (Rothstein). This increase in public knowledge of JRC’s abuse may have contributed to Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick filing a motion to challenge the 1987 court settlement that the JRC often uses as a defense whenever any Massachusetts agency attempts to regulate its use of physical aversives. This court order was meant to be vacated in 1988, but was extended indefinitely and has allowed the JRC to argue against any form of regulation by state agencies (Conaboy). Overturning it could mean a great deal as it would prevent the JRC from using this defense in the future.
Most recently, after sending three warning letters to the Judge Rotenberg Center informing the JRC that the GED-4 devices were not approved and could be seized by the FDA if they continued to use them (Beaudet and Rothstein), the FDA held a hearing on the issue of physical aversives at JRC. Many disability rights advocates attended and spoke at this panel, as did JRC representatives, and the advisory panel recommended that the FDA ban the GED and GED-4 devices (Markham). Although this advisory panel does not have the authority to ban the devices, this is a step towards them possibly being banned in the future.
The Judge Rotenberg Center Today
The situation at the Judge Rotenberg Center has changed very little for the approximately 240 children and adults who live there today, one third of whom receive shock aversives (Conaboy). The residents of the JRC are still, like residents from earlier times, subjected to reward and punishment techniques for behavior modification. Much of the school work students at JRC do still is solitary work completed on computers, where they are expected to teach themselves. The JRC still pays no consideration to any student’s diagnosis or history, including history of abuse, when “treating” students (Ahern and Rosenthal 7). The JRC still employs surveillance techniques that keep students in a constant state of fear (Gonnerman, “School”). The JRC currently generates revenues of over $52 million a year, with residential placements costing over $200,000 (Berrington). Most of this cost is covered by state and local school districts and state agencies serving disabled adults, with adults and children living at the JRC coming from New York, Massachusetts, and seven other states (Ahern and Rosenthal 6). The Judge Rotenberg Center is technically and legally considered a school, and is licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education. The residences that students of JRC live in are licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (Ahern and Rosenthal 9).
The children and adults at JRC now have a variety of diagnoses – autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities are still students at the JRC, but greater numbers of students with ADHD, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and students labeled as having “emotional problems” attend JRC now, making up slightly more than half of the students (Gonnerman, “School”). Many of these students have histories of being abused and abandoned by parental figures, and some are transfers from the juvenile justice system (Ahern and Rosenthal 8).
Children and adults at the JRC who are subjected to electric shocks are shocked on their legs, their arms, the soles of their feet, their fingertips, and their torsos. Often, they are shocked for years, even for longer than a decade in some cases. These shocks come from a remote-controlled backpack, called a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED), which is attached to the student’s back. These shocks have been known to cause blistering and painful red spots on the students’ skin. Additionally, the GED-4 was created to be even stronger than the GED-1 and therefore has potential to cause more pain and more injury. Some students receive hundreds of shocks per day (Ahern and Rosenthal 1). One student received 5,000 shocks in one day (Ahern and Rosenthal 8). Students are shocked over an extremely long period of time – of the 109 students receiving electric shocks at JRC at one point, 48 had been receiving these shocks for at least 5 years (Ahern 13). Additionally, GED-1 and GED-4 devices have both been known to malfunction, shocking students “repeatedly and rapidly” (Miller). One former student of JRC reported a staff member becoming angry with the student and began pushing multiple buttons on the remote at one time, shocking her in multiple places, and staff members shocking her for things she did not do in places where there were no cameras to provide a record of the incident (xxx).
Shocks have been used at JRC for an incredibly wide variety of behaviors. Although JRC claims that the intention is to stop self-harming or violent behaviors, it also has shocked students for many other things, including: involuntary body movements, waving hands, blocking out sound overstimulation by putting their fingers in their ears, wrapping their foot around the leg of their chair, tensing up their body or fingers, not answering staff quickly enough (xxx), screaming while being shocked, closing their eyes for more than 15 seconds, reacting in fear to other students being shocked, standing up, asking to use the bathroom, raising their hand (Miller), popping their own pimple, leaving a supervised area without asking, swearing, saying “no” (Ahern and Rosenthal 13), stopping work for more than 10 seconds, interrupting others, nagging, whispering, slouching, tearing up paper, and attempting to remove electrodes from their skin (Ahern and Rosenthal 20-21). Additionally, students are shocked for having 5 verbal behaviors in an hour. These behaviors can include talking to oneself, clearing one’s throat, crying, laughing, humming, repeating oneself, or “inappropriate tone of voice” (xxx). A former JRC teacher recalled how “one girl, who was blind, deaf, and non-verbal was moaning and rocking. Her moaning was like a cry. The staff shocked her for moaning. Turned out she had a broken tooth. Another child had an accident in the bathroom and was shocked” (Ahern and Rosenthal 3). The behaviors that JRC considers punishable by shocking are also discovered by surveillance footage, with shocks then administered after the fact. Shock has even been used as a threat to pressure students to say positive things about JRC in front of the state legislature (Berrington). Non-speaking students tend to be subjected to shock the most, and are the ones who often have a more difficult time speaking up about their abuse (xxx).
As students become acclimated to pain, JRC increases the strength and frequency of the punishments. This leads to a situation where “the severity of the punishment must be increased in an ever-increasing spiral” (Cobb 7). There is no rule at JRC about how old a child must be before they can be subjected to shock aversives, and Massachusetts law does not place an upper limit on the amount of pain that a student can be subjected to, short of death. There is a disproportion number of students of color within the JRC. Forty-five percent of JRC students are Black, and 28 percent are Latino. One psychiatrist who visited JRC described it thus: “Street kids, kids of color, carrying these shock backpacks. It is prison-like and they are prisoners of the apparatus” (Ahern and Rosenthal 7).
In addition to shock aversives, students of the JRC are also subjected to food deprivation. At JRC, this is couched in language like “Loss of Privilege,” “Contingent Food Program,” and “Specialized Food Program” (Kindlon, et al.) Students on these programs lose portions of their food whenever they do anything staff deem a negative behavior. One student described her franticness, loss of concentration, and restlessness due to hunger, causing her to lose more food. Often, she would lose all of her food for the day. Students who have lost food receive Loss of Privilege Food at the end of day, which consisted of ground up chicken chunks, mashed potato, spinach, and liver powder that was ice cold. Many students were unable to eat the Loss of Privilege Food (xxx). The Specialized Food Program is more restrictive, and does not give make-up food at the end of the day (Ahern and Rosenthal 19).
JRC students are also deprived of the ability to sleep. The rooms have alarms that would go off if someone moved in bed, waking others up. Students with the GED are made to sleep with the pack on them, which is physically very difficult, and also increases the feeling of fear among students, who are often terrified of being shocked while sleeping. One student described being given a GED-4 shock while she was asleep: “My fears came true one day and I was given a GED-4 shock while I was asleep. It was not explained to me why I got this shock. I was terrified and angry. I was crying. I kept asking why. And then they kept telling me ‘No talking out.’ After a few minutes Monitoring called, and told the staff to shock me again for ‘Loud, repetitive, disruptive talking out.’ […] After this incident I really stopped sleeping” (xxx). The JRC deprives students of basic physiological needs, including sleep and food.
The JRC also uses restraint and seclusion in its abuse of disabled students. The restraint board is described as “a large, door sized contraption made out of hard plastic, with locking restraint cuffs on each corner where your wrists and ankles get locked in. Your body becomes stretched spread eagle style, pinned tight, rendering you completely helpless, combined with an overwhelming feeling of vulnerability” (xxx). Sometimes, students are left shackled, restrained, and secluded for months (Ahern and Rosenthal 2). One student described being kept in a small room with one other staff member for a year and a half. A mother of a JRC student reported that her child had been placed in restraints for two years. The JRC also combines the four-point restraint board with electric shocks, sometimes placing the student in a face-down ‘prone’ position on the board (Ahern and Rosenthal 3). This is done at times to keep students from ripping the GED pack off their body, as well as “when the aversive power of electricity is not sufficient” (Ahern and Rosenthal 8). The ‘prone’ face-down restraints are generally considered outside of the JRC to be inherently dangerous, with many states banning the use of them (Ahern and Rosenthal 8).
Behavioral Rehearsal Lessons (BRLs) are another means with which the JRC fosters an environment of fear among its students. A BRL is a situation where staff members attack a student in a simulated “lesson.” These BRLs have been used since the JRC was known as the BRI, and at that time Matthew Israel described the point of the BRLs to show students who had had few “negative behaviors,” the connection between behavior and consequences (Kahn). In one situation, staff would rush at a student who was in a restraint jacket, restraint helmet, and a restraint chair, and scream at him “Do you want to swallow a knife? Do you want to swallow a knife?” while holding a plastic knife or metal spoon to the student’s mouth. After the student screamed, he was shocked by another staff member (Miller). Another former JRC student described two staff members grabbing the student and holding a knife to the student’s throat. This occurred repeatedly, three times a week for 6 months. The student said of the BRLs: “I was in a constant state of paranoia and fear. I never knew if a door opened if I would get one. It was more stress than I can ever imagine. Horror” (Ahern and Rosenthal 18).
Social isolation is another tool used against students at JRC. Students must earn the right to socialize at the “Big Reward Store,” an arcade full of pinball machines, video games, a pool table, and televisions. This is one of the only places students can socialize freely (Gonnerman, “School”). One former student, Isabel Cadeño, said, “Usually, you can’t talk to [your friends]. It was basically like we had to have enemies. They didn’t want us to be friendly with nobody.” The form of instruction JRC uses involves little to no instruction, since it is self-taught instruction on computer screens (Ahern and Rosenthal 17). Staff members are not permitted to carry on personal conversations with students (Ahern and Rosenthal 20). When students are deemed as behaving poorly, they are not even allowed to attend the school building during the day, and instead must stay in their residence and do schoolwork there (Ahern and Rosenthal 7).
The court is, in theory, supposed to provide a check on Level III physical aversives as used in the JRC, but in practice, it does not. Attending the JRC and being subjected to physical aversives is not voluntary for most JRC students. Many of the students are children, and it is parents and guardians who consent to their child’s placement at JRC. The JRC must go to court for each student on they wish to use Level III aversives, or aversives that create “a significant risk of physical or psychological harm” to the individual (Ahern and Rosenthal 31). The court rarely denies approval within these court cases (Ahern and Rosenthal 9). The JRC often has provoked students before attending the hearing. One former student described being brought into the courtroom in a helmet and restraints, and not being questioned by the judge. The decision was made based on testimony from JRC staff and charts of behaviors. These behaviors were over a period of time where the student was placed in seclusion and restraint for two months, and not being allowed to even shower during this time. She describes her experience thus: “I was bathed tied to a restraint board, naked, while staff washed me, putting their hands all over me. All in front of cameras while Monitoring watched, including men. Being tied on a restraint board, naked, with my private areas exposed to the staff in the bathroom and the cameras was the most horrible, vulnerable, frightening experience for me. I would scream out, ‘rape, rape!’ And these were recorded as major behaviors for me” (xxx). At times, student behavioral plans were even altered in advance so that judges could not see which behaviors for which students were being shocked (Miller).
Employees of the JRC are also placed in an environment of fear. There is pressure to shock JRC students even if staff members do not want to do so (Gonnerman, “School”), and JRC staff find it impossible to discuss concerns about their behavior due to the surveillance that exists almost everywhere at JRC, including in the staff break room. Employees are not allowed to have personal discussions with other staff members, are encouraged to anonymously file reports about coworkers, and are told to start up social conversations with staff members as a test that is monitored and watched on surveillance cameras. Employees are also encouraged to be fearful of being attacked by JRC students. They must sign confidentiality agreements when they are hired promising to not talk about the JRC even after they have left (Gonnerman, “School”). The JRC is described by both students and employees as an environment of fear. Because of the policies towards employees, employees are kept from speaking out against the abuses that occur towards students of the JRC.
How Does the JRC Justify Its Behavior?
In discussing the JRC, it is important to look at how they have traditionally justified their abuse of students, as these are the arguments they often use in legal challenges to this mistreatment and torture. The Judge Rotenberg Center has traditionally been known as a school of last resort. They have almost a one hundred percent acceptance rate, and a near zero expulsion rate (Gonnerman, “School”). This is appealing to parents of students who have been kicked out of other programs. Additionally, the Judge Rotenberg Center does not give psychiatric medication to students, another policy that is appealing to many parents. Some of the children and adults at the JRC were heavily medicated in other programs, and one parent described her son, Andrew, as sleeping his life away (Gonnerman, “School”). However, what is ignored in these arguments in favor of JRC is the existence of programs that do not heavily medicate students while still allowing disabled people to live their lives free of abusive physical aversives. A study of five adults who had been subjected to a program of shock aversives, mechanical restraints, and food deprivation found that the same alleviation of symptoms could be achieved for these adults in a setting that only used positive behavioral supports. A former student of JRC said, “I was considered a difficult case. I would like you to know that I am doing very well in a new program that is nothing like JRC. I don’t get shocked or put in restraints, and I am given help by staff and doctors that I can talk to. I am not as drugged up as JRC claims I would be if I left… I have gotten so much better from getting real help instead of constant punishment and pain” (xxx). The dichotomy that JRC supporters claim exists between being overly drugged and being subjected to physical aversives does not actually exist, and it is certainly not a reason to subject disabled people to either of these negative outcomes.
Another argument JRC supporters use is simply that “it works.” This is definitely debatable given conflicting ideas of what is working. What JRC does is create an environment of complete control. Marguerite Famolare carries the shock activator for the GED on her son Michael’s back in her purse when Michael comes home to visit, showing it to him when she wishes him to follow a command. “He’ll automatically comply to whatever my signal command may be, whether it is ‘put on your seatbelt,’ or ‘hand me that apple,’ or ‘sit appropriately and eat your food,’” she says. “It’s made him a human being, a civilized human being” (Gonnerman, “School”).
Rodrigo was 9 years old when Gonnerman, a Mother Jones reporter, met him at the Judge Rotenberg Center; he was already being subjected to GED shocks. Patricia Rivera, a psychologist at the JRC, considered him a success case, saying he was “aggressive” and “disruptive” when he came to the JRC (Gonnerman, “School”). Gonnerman asked Rodrigo if he wanted to say anything, and “Rodrigo lift[ed] a small hand and pull[ed] the recorder down toward his lips. ‘I want to move to another school,’ he sa[id]” (Gonnerman, “School”).
The JRC does not give its students a better quality of life; it merely forces them into obedience and therefore makes students more convenient for society. Physical aversives create stasis, as students must continue to be subjected to these aversives. JRC often argues that children and adults who leave the JRC will “revert” back after leaving the center, and claims that this is proof that the JRC works. “By applying circular reasoning, proponents of aversives claim that: if a student can live outside of the initial program he was not as challenged in the first place. The proof, therefore, that aversives ‘work’ is that JRC students can never leave the program” (Cobb 8). The opinion of the disabled students who are subjected to these procedures is often negative towards JRC, and the opinion of parents is often positive towards JRC. This raises concerns about whose opinions are important, and unfortunately both the JRC and society as a whole tend to side with nondisabled parents over disabled children. This is truly a travesty, as it is disabled children and adults who are being subjected to the effects of physical aversives, and it is disabled children and adults who are being abused and tortured in this setting. Disabled students at the JRC were real human beings before they came to the JRC, and they are still real human beings with a right to not be treated abusively.
The Judge Rotenberg Center and its supporters also claim that the pain of shock aversives is less harmful than self-injurious behaviors. In doing so, they often use incredibly othering rhetoric towards disabled people. One common argument is that people who self-injure are so “fundamentally different from other people” that “one cannot analyze why they are doing what they are doing, one can only respond” (Cobb 7). This is completely untrue, and evidence of extreme prejudice towards disabled people among supporters of the JRC. Another appalling form of othering that has been used by JRC supporters is to ask whether autistic people are even capable of feeling pain, if pain translates to harm, and if there is any harm in shocking disabled people. These questions were asked at the FDA hearing about physical aversives at JRC (Markham). Matthew Israel, former head of JRC, once said that shocking JRC students “has no detrimental effects whatsoever” (Hinman and Brown). The JRC has also promoted the idea that the GED shock is equivalent in pain to a “hard pinch” or a “bee sting.” Students, however, have described it burning into their skin, and have described long term loss of sensation and numbness, even with the GED-1 (xxx). Shock aversives have a variety of long term effects, including but not limited to: “muscle stiffness, impotence, damage to teeth, scarring of skin, hair loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, chronic anxiety, memory loss, and sleep disturbance” (Ahern and Rosenthal 3). Additionally, JRC students have reported fear, loss of control, vulnerability, anger, anxiety, depression, humiliation, loss of dignity, powerlessness, abandonment, despair, confusion, boredom, embarrassment, loneliness, sadness, and experiencing delusions (Ahern and Rosenthal 24). One student, Rob Santana, who was sent to JRC when he was 13 years old described the nightmares he still has years after leaving JRC: “He’d had that dream again, the one where silver wires ran under his shirt and into his pants, connecting to electrodes attached to his limbs and torso. Adults armed with surveillance cameras and remote-control activators watched his every move. One press of a button and there was no telling where the shock would hit – his arm or leg, or worse, his stomach. All Rob knew that the pain would be intense. Every time he woke from this dream, it took him a few moments to remember that he was in his own bed, that there weren’t electrodes locked to his skin, that he wasn’t about to be shocked” (Gonnerman, “School”).
JRC’s abuse causes physical and emotional pain to its students. Even if the procedure was medically necessary – which it is not – the United Nations condemns intrusive and irreversible, nonconsensual treatments being performed on people, especially marginalized people, even when medical necessity is used as a justification (Méndez). The United States has an obligation to stop this torture of disabled students that has been subsidized and sanctioned by state and federal governments for far too long.
The Judge Rotenberg Center’s abusive behavior is a civil rights concern, and should be addressed by policy at the federal level. As the New York Psychological Association Task Force said, the use of shock aversives on the students at the Judge Rotenberg Center would be considered corporal punishment and would be illegal if the nondisabled people were treated the same way in a school setting. Regulations that selectively allow abusive punishment for disabled students that are not allowed for nondisabled students is not only a terrible allowance of abuse, but also is a discriminatory action on the part of the United States and Massachusetts governments, regardless of whether we call this “corporal punishment” or “aversive behavioral intervention” (Ahern and Rosenthal 27). Additionally, the lack of actual instruction within the Judge Rotenberg Center, the social isolation, the food deprivation, and the use of restraints and seclusion as punishment and for long periods of time mean that preventing the Judge Rotenberg Center from using shock aversives, while it would be a step in the right direction, would not be broad enough to stop the abuse at the Center. The Judge Rotenberg Center (formerly called the Behavior Research Institute) has tortured disabled children and adults for over forty years, and it needs to stop now.
This policy must be passed at a federal level. The Judge Rotenberg Center has been located in three different states over its history, and there is a real possibility of the JRC moving again if protections were only ensured on a state level (Méndez). Currently, there is some federal policy that is applicable to the Judge Rotenberg Center, but much of that legislation has been weakened by court action. For example, in 1975, Congress passed the “Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act” (DD Act) which states, that “the Federal Government and the States have an obligation to ensure that public funds are provided only to institutional programs, residential programs, and other community programs, including educational programs in which individuals with developmental disabilities participate, that… meet minimum standards relating to provision of care that is free of abuse, neglect, sexual and financial exploitation, and violations of legal and human rights that subjects individuals with disabilities to no greater risk of harm than others in the general population… and prohibition of the use of such restraint and seclusion as a substitute for a habilitation program” (Ahern and Rosenthal 29). However, in the case, Pennhurst State School and Hospital vs. Halderman, where a former Pennhurst resident alleged that the hospital was unsanitary, inhumane, dangerous, and used cruel and unusual punishment, the US Supreme Court ruled that the DD Act did not create any new legal rights or protections and the language of the DD Act was “horatory not mandatory.” The court opinion, written by William Rehnquist, stated that “[t]he Act does no more than express a congressional preference for certain kinds of treatment” (Ahern and Rosenthal 30). Consequently, new legislation that has similar goals but expresses them in a way that is clear about the mandatory nature of the legislation is necessary.
Although The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health has said that “restraint will be used only as safety interventions of last resort, not as treatment interventions” and the US Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration has said that restraint and seclusion are “detrimental to the recovery of persons with mental illnesses” (Ahern and Rosenthal 12), no federal legislation has enforced these goals. Restraints and seclusion are still used in almost every state in the United States, and no federal law limits the use of restraints within schools (Ahern and Rosenthal 28). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that alternatives to aversives should be considered, but does not explicitly prohibit aversives (Ahern and Rosenthal 29). None of these recommendations have protected the students at the Judge Rotenberg Center from the torturous treatment they have experienced.
Federal law could draw from the state laws of California, Connecticut, Florida, North and South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, and Colorado, all of which have taken steps to ban or limit the use of aversives on disabled children and adults (Cobb 9). A US Court of Appeals found in Bryant vs. New York State Department of Education (2012) that bans on aversive interventions did not violate IDEA as was alleged by the plaintiffs. The decision reads “[w]e conclude that prohibiting one possible method of dealing with disorders in behavior, such as aversive intervention, does not undermine a child’s right to an individualized, free and appropriate public education, and that New York’s law represents the State’s considered judgment regarding the education and safety of its children that is consistent with federal education policy and the United States Constitution” (Bryant 2). Federal law prohibiting aversive interventions would provide protection throughout the US for disabled children and adults subjected to aversive techniques, including the students of the Judge Rotenberg Center.
For Rob Santana, who declared about JRC: “It’s worse than jail. That place is the worst place on earth”; for Raquel, a 15-year-old who caught a reporter’s eye and held up a message in pink marker that read “HELP US”; for Janine, a 16-year-old who has been hooked up to the GED for half of her life (Gonnerman, “School”); for xxx who bravely wrote her testimony about her experience at JRC; for Christopher Hirsch; for Andre McCollins; for Rodrigo; for the six students who died at BRI/ JRC over the years: Robert Cooper, Danny Aswad, Vincent Millitich, Abigail Gibson, Linda Cornelison, and Silverio Gonzalez; and for all the other current and past victims of torture at the Judge Rotenberg Center, we must change policy that permits this civil rights violation to occur, and create new policy to stop it.
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Miller, Gregory J. “From Former JRC Staff: Please do not approve any GED devices, and please do investigate and prosecute false claims of FDA approval of GED-4 devices.” Message to Muthar S. Shamsi and Karen Archdeacon. N.d. E-mail. 10 Jun. 2014. <http://www.autistichoya.com/ 2013/01/letter-from-former-teacher-at-torture.html>.
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