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State Challenges School Using Shock Therapy


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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“Our motion would vacate the 1987 court order, which is outdated and inconsistent with the current state of behavioral treatment for persons with disabilities,” said Alec Loftus, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive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.”

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Comments (7 Responses)

  1. Tacitus says:

    Once again, it is not “shock therapy,” it’s aversive therapy. Shocks are one manner of torturing students. Another is forcing people to sniff noxious, sometimes toxic chemicals. Another used at this school is denial of food. One that is used across the nation, however, is punitive restraint. Shocks are a particularly dramatic form of aversive therapy, but in all its forms, aversive therapy is designed to torture people into submission. It’s a form of violence with or without an electrode, and should be opposed with or without an electrode.

  2. Rylin Hansen says:

    I applaud the potential end of this practice – is human ingenuity so lacking that researchers have never been able to think beyond pain as an aversive stimulation? Perhaps if denied that there will be stronger motivation to do so!

  3. carly says:

    Is there some law that you must send your love ones to this facility knowing what the school does? is this the only choice? It would be a big hardship to move out of this state but I would do it in a heartbeat for my child.
    Shame on the state of Massachusetts

  4. patm says:

    Some families are against their members having medications and this is an alternative form of treatment. Shock is not used all the time. Usually the person would only needs to be shocked once or twice and they get the message not to do that particular behavior anymore. That beats having to take a sedating medication everyday. Everyone is against restraints but how are we to train people out of maladaptive behaviors in a humane way if we don’t use some aversive methods? Those of us working with difficult individuals want to do the right thing and there are different ways of looking at the various methods.

  5. Mendy Hecht says:

    I think the authorities here are reacting emotionally without really knowing what the “shock therapy” actually consists of. As it turns out, it is used quite sparingly at the school–and what you also won’t hear is the success stories resulting from it.

  6. Keeping it Real says:

    Why is the government getting involved in the parents right to have their children treated at this school. It is a parents choice on what they want and what is best for THEIR child. The government is not the parent. If the ged is what the parent wants and it is working, then why say no. I know that I wouldnt want my child to be drugged up all day and all night long and if there was anything out there that could help my child live a normal life, then I would go ahead and do what needed to be done in order for my child to live like we do. You can complain about this school and call it torture as much as you want but walk a day in the shoes of the kids and their parents. See what they have gone through, know their stories before complaining about the school and its programs.

  7. Lorre Mendelson says:

    This is not ‘therapy”. It is not accepted or regulated by the FDA and there is no suggested amount of voltage used on any invidividual or groups of individuals. I am amazd this has been allowed to continue. What about the student’s rights who attend the school right now, if you can in fact call this a school. Lorre

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