A Massachusetts judge is allowing the practice of shocking children and adults with disabilities to continue at a residential center even as federal regulators mull banning the controversial behavior modification technique.

Late last month, Judge Katherine Field of Bristol County Probate and Family Court ruled in favor of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass., which is the only facility in the U.S. using electric shock devices to deter negative behavior in those with disabilities, according to court documents.

In the decision, Field wrote that state officials failed to demonstrate a professional consensus that the so-called aversive treatment “does not conform to the accepted standard of care for treating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The case, which was brought by the state of Massachusetts in 2013, sought to end a court order that has limited the state’s regulatory authority of the center since the 1980s. Officials argued unsuccessfully that the advent of newer psychotropic medications could be used to treat harmful behaviors instead, according to court documents.

The Rotenberg Center said in a statement that skin shock is used as a last resort for “severe self-abusive, aggressive and health-dangerous behavior disorders.”

“There is no more important issue in the world to the students and families who rely on this treatment and we are satisfied the court took the time to engage in a fact-based review to reach this ruling,” the statement said.

Massachusetts officials did not respond to a request for comment, however in an interview with WCVB-TV Boston, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the department would consider whether to appeal.

The use of electric shock at the Rotenberg Center, which provides residential and day services, has raised concern for years from disability advocacy groups and federal regulators.

Samantha Crane, legal director and director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said some people with autism process pain in such a way that a shock can feel like torture.

“Even people who aren’t on the autism spectrum who have experienced this shock say it’s extremely painful,” she said.

According to the court papers, the shocks can only be provided with consent from a parent or guardian and a judge. The shocks last two seconds and are mostly given to adults rather than children, the documents say. Staff administer the shocks via a battery operated transmission device worn on the arm or leg.

In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on the devices, noting “significant psychological and physical risks are associated with the use of these devices.”

But final action hasn’t been taken. FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Caccomo said the agency is continuing to work on the issue and she couldn’t speculate on the timing of a decision.

“This is an issue that’s really galvanized the disability community,” said Crane of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “It’s got unprecedented community involvement. We’ve got a petition with over 290,000 signatures asking the FDA to finalize this ban.”

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.