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FDA May Ban Shock Devices Used On Those With Special Needs


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The Food and Drug Administration is considering banning devices used to administer electric shocks to children and adults with developmental disabilities in an effort to modify their behavior.

In a 126-page report issued this week, the federal agency said it is currently reviewing what are known as electrical stimulation devices and could move to bar their continued use.

“The FDA has grown concerned that serious risks of using these devices may outweigh the benefits for patients with limited intellectual ability or developmental disabilities, and that they may pose an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury to patients,” FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Rodriguez said in an email to Disability Scoop.

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Massachusetts — which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities as well as those with behavioral and emotional problems — is believed to be the only entity in the nation currently using the devices.

Officials with the Rotenberg Center said that the approach is a last resort for individuals with “life-threatening behavior disorders” for whom other psychological and psychiatric treatments have been unsuccessful.

“Without the treatment program at JRC, these children and adults would be condemned to lives of pain by self-inflicted mutilation, psychotropic drugs, isolation, restraint and institutionalization — or even death,” the Rotenberg Center said in a statement.

The FDA report indicates that as of February 2013, as many as 86 students at the school were eligible to receive skin shocks for exhibiting undesired behaviors. The approach is only used with students whose parents have given consent and with authorization from the Massachusetts Probate Court, the Rotenberg Center indicated.

The school has long been under fire from disability advocates who say that it is inhumane to address behavior problems with electric shocks. In recent years, the Rotenberg Center has faced an inquiry from the U.S. Department of Justice and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture determined that the rights of students at the center had been violated.

The FDA approved the electric shock devices used at the Rotenberg Center in the 1990s to treat individuals who “exhibit self-injurious behavior of sufficient intensity and frequency to cause serious damage to themselves.” But the agency warned the school in 2012 that its devices — which had been modified to deliver a current nearly three times as high — no longer had proper clearance.

In its report, the FDA said a former student told investigators that the shocks felt like “a thousand bees stinging you in the same place for a few seconds.” FDA investigators were told of burns, scars, muscle spasms, seizures and other effects resulting from the skin shocks and onetime students said the experience left them feeling “fearful” and “anxious.”

A federal advisory panel met Thursday to weigh the benefits of electric stimulation devices and could make a recommendation to the FDA, but it will be up to the agency to assess whether or not to ban the devices, Rodriguez said.

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Comments (32 Responses)

  1. Dan says:

    FDA is still working in the 20th century while we are living in the 21st century. . . .

  2. Sue says:

    MAY? who on earth wants this “treatment” for their child?

  3. Cheri Sipes says:

    I was horrified when I read about this place through an email I received from It was a petition against this so-called treatment center from a person who had previously worked there and was lied to about the use of these shock treatments. I can not believe that this was ever allowed in the US. It is completely cruel and inhumane. I hope they shut the place down.

  4. soricobob says:

    Oh, I get it, they are “currently” reviewing it. IMHO, the FDA is behind the times by 50 years. When the Feds declared that they recognized special needs (94-142 and 504), then electronic control, punishment, and other injurious behavior should have ceased to exist. If those that deal with special needs cannot control them without hurting them, then those inflicting pain should be looking for work elsewhere. This is not the “Dark Ages” anymore, and we should have learned a great deal in the 5 decades since laws were passed enabling the disabled.

  5. John says:

    At last!

    The Rotenberg Center is “roten” to the core and should be closed. If that isn’t viable then it should undergo a complete purge of existing management/admin staff. Torture has and never will be a viable treatment option for mental illness.

  6. Rosella A Alm says:

    It’s about time! What a person with self abusive behavior, i.e. sticking their hand through windows, trying to rip their ear off, beating their head against a wall etc. needs is one to one intervention to POSITIVELY redirect the person. He does not need more pain!

    When Dr. Ivar Lovaas proposed subjecting our son to electroshock treatment in the 1970’s we said, “Not on your life”. Since then we all had some rough times, our boy had similar self-abusive behavior issues, and our patience, and that of his teachers at times, was tried beyond belief. But he has matured into an admirable man, well-loved by his neighbors and friends.

    Lovaas, on the other hand, went on to construct elaborate electrified rooms, (no doubt from the best of intentions) to modify the behavior of his helpless patients.

    We know what the road to Hell is paved with.

  7. Sandy Hemmer says:

    Why is this place still in business if the US justice dept has found them to be violating rights of people? We don’t use this on prisoners, why on people with disabilities? INHUMANE and cruel. This will not modify behavior, it will kill someone. This center needs to be shut down. And if the FDA approved this use in the 1990s and now sees the center is using this shock treatment at 3 times the “okayed” amounts a decade or so ago, why are they still operating. There is no “whether or not to ban the devices” they are already being used in a cruel way/misused for the purposes originally permitted. Disgusting that this is occurring today.

  8. Erin says:

    The justification for electric shocks was that it is “the approach is a last resort for individuals with ‘life-threatening behavior disorders’ for whom other psychological and psychiatric treatments have been unsuccessful.” Granted there will be times when we need to deal with immediate danger. But equally as often, we will need legislation with teeth, for those who would abuse their power and harm our kids. Abuse under the guise of treatment and mercy is unacceptable.

  9. Rebecca says:

    DUH! I am beyond disgusted. Out illustrious leaders, in ALL the hierarchies, have long been proving their stupidity. That this should not have been done years ago exemplifies their innocuous and insipid mind sets. As with the proverbial stop sign/stop light that no one wants because it is inconvenient, will it take a death or a severe injury to someone who is important to someone else who is important?
    If you have never contacted your elected leaders or the government agencies for whom you pay the salaries, it is time and past time.

  10. Cathy says:

    I had no idea such a thing would be allowed. I worked in the schools for awhile and some parents just sign off on anything presented to them to avoid a hassle, sad but true. I always thought about getting a shock collar for my dog over a barking issue but never had the heart to do it. You really got to wonder about the mental stability of someone willing to do that to another child or adult.

  11. Becky says:

    When a person engages in Self Injurious Behavior, it is always because the person has PAIN. Period. End of discussion. Why would anyone think that a person would want to inflict pain upon themselves just to defy another person? My son has had debilitating SIB, but with the right treatment protocol that is getting to the cause of his pain (infection), his SIB to his head has gone. I wish I could help every patient at Rotenberg. SIB equals pain until proven other wise. My son cannot speak but can write his thoughts out with RPM. He can tell me why he used to hit his head and he said it was because it hurt him and nothing else would relieve the pain. I cannot imagine the fear and confusion that these poor children felt while being administered electric shocks. They were probably thinking, “Why are they doing this to me? I am crying out for help with my pain. Why are they causing me burns and more pain?” It makes me sick to my stomach that this would even happen to one person at all, much less a poor helpless person with a disability.

  12. Steve says:

    I see these negative comments and people judging JRC and it’s programming but which one of you have had a child in this program. My son was there for just about 4 years. Without that program he would of been dead. He graduated 7 years ago and is doing extremely well. Shock therapy was a very minor part to his treatment but used along with many other interventions. Prior to JRC and their treatment plan he was on 6 meds and in and out of hospitals. Today he is med free and an incredible young man who has overcome many obstacles.

  13. Dr. Mary Cerreto says:


    Yes, the FDA response is still “may” — Now we first approached the FDA over 17 years ago!! The FDA is leery that there will not be treatments for people with complex and severe behavior problems such as aggression (Huh?!!). Please email FDA and tell them how you provide services (or how you’ve received services) for severe issues WITHOUT the use of electric shock. Thank you!!!!

  14. Bryan Connor says:

    The word MAY scares me. That ranks right up there with MAY start closing institutions.

  15. janet says:

    Psych test all who work with these patients first. Like as in yesterday. Anyone who has worked and witnessed the abuse with these machines and has not immediately protested or refused to use then…is highly suspect in my opinion.

  16. Jon K. Evans says:

    The FDA? Doesn’t the 8th Amendment already ban Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

  17. Rona Anderson says:

    People with Disabilitys ,that are showing behaviors that can hurt them selves or someone else ,should be hospitalised an tested by a Biomedical Docter .an these test will show why these children or adults are abusing them selfs .their is a reason they are acting abusive to them selves an others. Find the Cause of the problem Change their Diets ! Healing starts from with in.

  18. cara says:

    Im sorry, I think you all should withhold judgment because you don’t know the situations under which they are using this treatment. I have observed truely dangerous situations at times and what we are doing isn’t much more safe, but all of you people in your comfy jobs along with politicians forget the danger frontline workers face. Sometimes its wrong and there is no other way. The two situations can exist simultaneously.

  19. Peia says:

    This is barbaric and outrageous. Learning and behaviour is one of the first subjects taught in university psychology courses, and any student with even this basic knowledge of how consequences shape behaviour will know that punishment (an aversive consequence to a behaviour) is empirically one of the weakest determinants of behaviour.

    Delivering electric shocks to people (particularly these most vulnerable and marginalised members of our community) is not only inhumane and a violation of their human rights, but it is also very poor policy which completely ignores the science and strong evidence that contraindicates it.

  20. Mendy Hecht says:

    I think that as Americans, we read “torture” and we immediately viscerally react, concluding that it’s a bad thing.

    Of course, it usually is. (Except, in my opinion, when it comes to torturing torturers like terrorists and other such creatures who have no problem torturing America by flying fully-fueled planes filled with men, women and children into buildings. But that’s a whole other discussion.)

    As a writer, though, I did look into the Rotenberg facility rather extensively (and no, I’m not paid off here) and as far as my research went, the electroshock program is used there rather sparingly and on a case-by-case basis. There also seem to be as many parents and (current and former) students for it as there are against it; they testify (some fiercely) that the treatment worked where all else failed.

    As for the U.N. official and that cumbersome and over-important title, I wasn’t aware that the U.N. was in charge of the U.S. Quite frankly, he should mix out–and go anywhere else in the world where there are real humanitarian problems of torture going on, not in some special-needs school where a little zap is used for humanitarian benefits–and not on a regular basis, contrary to the impression news reports give us–to correct extreme physical behaviors that aren’t responding to anything else.

    I respectfully challenge you all to look into Rotenberg yourself. I think you’ll come to the conclusion, as I did, that it’s really not as bad at all as what they say it is.

  21. F. Dang says:

    Interestingly the only group of individuals who have stopped using punisment/adversive methods are the animal trainers. Especially the professional Dog Trainers and DVM, Behavioral consultants. Although they recognize that punishment works they realize that there are other behavior problems that are started when using Punishment. The Professional Dog Traniners and DVM’s are using excursively positive reinforcement/operant conditioning as well as classical conditioning. They work with a wide range of dogs from the very aggressive to the timid. It is interesting that the individuals working with children are using punishment to change behavior. It seems that they are way behind the times when attempting to change children’s behavior.
    Last I heard Lovaas doesn’t use shock anymore., back in the 60’s we used to refer to him as the “cattle prod ” man for his use of the electric cattle prod to alter children’s behavior. He has since come out with another method call Discrete Trial, and has a book on working with the DD population using operant conditioning.

  22. Frances Goff says:

    It’s about time the FDA banned these devices, tho’ we all know the FDA is basically still lost in the 15th Century.

  23. Linda says:

    Parent/caregivers should really understand and communicate with their children about what happens to them in other venues besides home.

  24. trapper creek says:

    How is it that the JRC has remained licensed as a school and/or a residential program? Let me see if I get this right: The failure of the state’s regulatory agencies and probate court system is now being addressed by the FDA?

    I don’t work in or know much about services in MA, but how could this not be considered abuse under their state statutes or regulatory structure? Knowing the Probate Court has approved this treatment does little to suggest that body provides adequate protection to MA residents or is current with their knowledge of modern approaches to dealing with serious maladaptive behavior.

    This whole story creeps me out.

  25. KA101 says:

    The really sad part is that there are folks who have been personally shocked (as opposed to parents, who merely had folks shocked) who defend the place. Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing.

  26. Brandon McCord says:

    Applied behavior analysis (ABA) has demonstrated effective, reinforcement-based approaches for treating individuals that exhibit severe problem behavior including aggression and self-injury (among others). Practitioners of ABA, called behavior analysts, attempt to identify variables that influence the occurrences of these behaviors and then change the contingencies. For example, some individuals appear to exhibit SIB because it produces certain responses from others (access to attention, tangible items, etc). These identified reinforcers (like attention) are then withheld when problem behavior occurs and are used to strengthen an alternative (more appropriate) response-such as saying, “Talk to me”. This basic model of behavioral intervention is highly successful in most cases. However, sometimes identification of behavioral function is difficult and sometimes individuals do not respond to typical reinforcement-based interventions. I am concerned that we would dismiss a potentially effective treatment option (shock) for individuals that are unresponsive to other treatments and continue to exhibit severe problem behavior. Many of you have not observed the kinds of behavior of which I am writing-such as head banging to the point of requiring sutures creating the risk for infection and brain injury. In other cases, head hitting has caused loss of hearing and permanent disfigurement of ears. With proper oversight and informed consent, I do believe we should keep a wide variety treatment options available for these sort of extremely difficult cases.

  27. Brandon McCord says:

    Note: My prior post was not an endorsement of JRC or its particular practices.

  28. HorrifiedGramma says:

    Do you know what JRC characterizes as behavior needing shocks? It is a little girl with cerebral palsy who is nonverbal moaning and reaching out to Staff for a hug. Yes, needing comfort and being unable to talk clearly indicates non compliant behavior to those sadists. The child got shocks for it. How sick!

  29. Anne says:

    Shock therapy is barbaric and a cowardly “treatment”.

    I have an adult autistic son who has high anxiety/aggressive behaviors. I have lived through numerous violent outbursts and have the scars to show it, but I would not shock my son to curb his behavior.

    There are options to change behaviors, though they take time. Medication adjustments, transition training, positive reinforcement, stimulus reduction, biofeedback, and even food allergy testing can help. But I guess these “front-line workers” as Cara rallied for below don’t have the time to invest in proper education for the clients of their chosen profession…Shocking victims is quicker, easier reaction and probably satisfies some internal desire to torture individuals. This is exactly why my son still lives at home with me. I don’t trust caregivers of the disabled due to horror stories like this one.

    Further, arm flapping, rocking, humming and head banging are normal behaviors for some with autism. Shocking them into submission is like shocking you or I for breathing. Sensory overload is also common, so I can’t imagine what these poor victims are going through with each jolt.

    If the workers think it’s ok to practice such torture, I say hook the workers up to a Shock beeper, strap them down and let the volts fly through them until their brains fry so they can understand how it feels. Perhaps we should offer the same experience to the FDA to help them make a decision.

    And for those who say it doesn’t hurt the (non-verbal) victims….a scream is a very verbal response….if they scream…it’s hurting them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

    This is shameful. FDA needs to ban this practice.

  30. Jeanette cherem says:

    I think that this is inhumane,that every children has to have a solution we can strive for and there are many equipment out there that it is possible to help control their self injuries example arm restraints , helmets and mats to use on a proper way I could tell you from my beautifull and lovely son who I thank Kennedy krieger institute in Baltimore that I had a chance to keep my son and give him his proper love like any other parent could give .i think we need to understand them and really give them their proper needs NOT thru cruelty!

  31. Harry says:

    Although controversial and outdated I am sure it gets some results, but at what cost? I have worked with the disabled for over 22 years and was horrified to hear that aversive therapy is condoned by the government. Here in Australia it would never be allowed and if it was it would have to be reported for each and every occasion with an explanation as to what else has been tried before hand. Humanity sees it as cruel to treat an animal this way so why would anyone considerate ok to treat any human this way. As I said it may get results but the cost is psychological trauma that will never be forgotten. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and in the future people will say how can this have ever been allowed to happen, the Rotenberg Center will go down in history with infamy and all their good work will be ignored because of this barbaric act. The world has moved on from this type of treatment of the developmentally disabled. We now use positive behavior support and other tools at our disposal that would not be considered illegal against other members of our community. Government around the world need to understand that the funding that is put into early intervention programs saves them ten fold over a life time of supported accommodation. My advice to any parent and governments is that the more life skills that can be taught to these young people before teenage hormones kick in, the better quality of life they will have for all of their life. The ends does not justify the means!

  32. Stephanie Cannon says:

    As a mother of an autistic 10 year old, I am absolutely horrified these teachers and other ‘educated’ people think cruel and unusual punishment will help these kids in ANY possible way. These punishments will decrease attendance and increase anxiety in these kids, causing them to regress more into their worlds and also make them deathly afraid of attending school, leading to accusations of parental neglect and Child Protection getting involved in the case.
    My son was a victim of teacher abuse, she would scream in his face, hit him with notebooks and books all over his head and face, yet not hard enough to leave bruises or marks, but enough to cause him severe anxiety and refusal to go to school. Guess what, CPS became involved in our case and threatened us numerous times to put him in foster care. What exactly would that have solved??? We were able to get our son help and had a wonderful Behavioral therapist come work with him ad EVENTUALLY he went back to school and started loving it once again. After 15 months of having these people involved in our lives and the court system wasting tax payor’s money, lo and behold they are still in our lives!!! Promises of closing the case have come and gone as well as monthly visits still happen to make sure our son is fine.
    All along, they should have been investigating this teacher. When I brought my son to our neighborhood store one time, there was a lady who resembled his old teacher and he had an absolute breakdown; holding on to me, screaming, crying, etc. This person traumatized my son so bad, he required medication for his anxiety, yet, CPS did NOTHING for us and accused of us of neglect. For all I know this teacher still works with kids and is still doing the same thing.
    We never sued the school district because I never thought we had a case, although I would love to for my own personal satisfaction as well as telling them they can shove their policies where the sun don’t shine.
    I thought I would mention my situation because these children in NY will regress backwards and eventually refuse to go to school which means school districts will be loosing out on a lot of money because of federal grants they receive for these special needs kids. They can’t have that!!! Be warned….Child Protection and the court systems will try getting involved in these families lives causing nothing but misery and stress. I wouldn’t wish my situation on my worst enemy! I have shead too many tears to count and the stress levels put on my family have caused myself, my husband and my 14 year old son to be prescribed anti-depressants and anxiety medications.
    Please seek help if your childrens attendance starts to decline, there is no one else to blame but the school district and government for having these barbaric devices in place. I have also signed the petition and never thought school districts would revert back to the 50’s with electroshock therapy and think this is the way to discipline children. We have to protect our children before it is too late and if it means taking matters into our own hands, so be it.
    These children know what is happening around them, they have no way of expressing themselves and telling us things are not right. We, as parents, cannot give up on our special kids and let the government tell us how to raise our kids and allow them to think this type of ‘assault’ is okay!!!!

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