Officials in Massachusetts are taking steps to clamp down on a controversial school that uses electric shocks to address behavior problems in kids and adults with developmental disabilities.
In a legal filing last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley moved to end a court order that has limited the state’s regulatory authority of the Judge Rotenberg Center since the 1980s.
The Canton, Mass. facility, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities and those with behavioral and emotional problems, is believed to be the only one in the country using electric shocks to address behavior issues.
For years disability advocates have likened the methods used at the Rotenberg Center to torture, leading the U.S. Department of Justice and the United Nations to investigate.
Massachusetts officials have acted in recent times to limit the use of so-called aversive therapies, instituting regulations in 2011 in an effort to prevent the treatment from being applied to new students at the Rotenberg Center. Now, the state wants broader authority over the facility, insisting that the use of electric skin shocks is not in line with currently accepted methods of treatment for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Our motion would vacate the 1987 court order, which is outdated and inconsistent with the current state of behavioral treatment for persons with disabilities,” said Alec Loftus, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. “Our goal is to ensure that all individuals in the Commonwealth receive safe treatments, in line with best practices in the medical field, and we are optimistic that the court will rule in our favor.”
However, the facility has its supporters, with some parents and former students defending the practices as effective.
Officials at the Rotenberg Center say there’s no reason for the court order to end and they plan to fight the state’s effort.
“It was an agreement that the treatment should be available if no other treatment works,” said Michael Flammia, the Rotenberg Center’s attorney, of the court agreement from the 1980s. “There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support (the use of aversive therapies) and the court continues to approve the treatment.”
Currently, Flammia said that about a third of the facility’s 240 clients ranging in age from 10 to 50 have court approval to receive the skin-shock treatment. If the treatment were not available to these individuals, Flammia said the only alternatives would be “restraint or massive doses of antipsychotics.”
Nonetheless, the Rotenberg Center is facing increasing pressure. Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid told Massachusetts health officials that it would no longer allow Medicaid funds to be used to pay for services at facilities that use electric shock. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to the Rotenberg Center in December citing concerns over the devices used to administer skin shocks.
Disability advocates who have pressed for the school to be closed said the latest court filing could signal the beginning of the end for the controversial facility.
“For the last several decades Canton, Mass. has been home to what has amounted to state-sponsored torture and now the state of Massachusetts is taking a stand,” said Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “This is the state saying that the time has come to break the status quo.”