Autism in the News: Judge Rotenberg Center Petition

Trigger Warning: Parts of this article are scary and detail specific accounts of torture including the video.

For many years the Judge Rotenberg Center, a “special needs day, respite and residential school” for children ages three to adult, has been under investigation for “highly abusive and questionable interventions” used on students and now there is a petition that you can sign to help stop the electric abuse on Change.org. On Thursday, April 24, 2014 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) recommended that all electric shock devices (ESDs) be banned for behavioral control after meeting with TASH Executive Director Barb Trader and “Alliance for the Prevention of Restraint, Aversive Interventions, and Seclusion (APRAIS) who also offered testimony, as well as Lydia Brown, representing TASH New England; TASH Board members Ari Ne’eman, representing the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and Emily Titon, representing Occupy JRC; and TASH members Fredda Brown, Chris Oliva, and Dina Trianello.”  This comes after the FDA sent the Judge Rotenberg Center a warning letter in December of 2012 that the new modified GED3 and GED4 (Graduated Electronic Decelerator) devices were modified without FDA approval and on “May 23, 2011, FDA notified [JRC] facility that the changes and modifications to the originally-cleared GED device require a new premarket notification under 21 CFR 807.81(a)(3).  As a result, the GED3A and GED4 devices violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (Act) because your facility has failed to obtain FDA clearance or approval.”

Autism Judge Petition
Despite video surveillance, and both student as well as staff testimony, the school remains open and able to use a device they created and then later “modified” called the GED on students for any behavior they deem “problematic.” These contingent shocks are said by JRC staff to be “no more painful than a bee sting” but when investigative reporter Jennifer Gonnerman reported in Mother Jones Magazine, “when I tried the shock, it felt like a horde of wasps attacking me all at once. Two seconds never felt so long.” Some of these “behaviors” were: tensing their body or fingers; closing their eyelids for more than 10 seconds; uncontrollable tics (that were not self-injurious or harmful to others); reaching for a staff member’s hand; for covering their ears when things get loud; making more than five verbal sounds per hour (which includes clearing their throat, crying, laughing, using an inappropriate tone and asking to use the bathroom); wrapping one’s foot around the base of their own chair while seated; rocking; and wiggling one’s fingers.

The Judge Rotenberg Center is in Canton, Massachusetts where the probate judges allow the use of contingent shock “treatments” based on the information that is brought to them by the JRC staff. According to the Mother Jones Magazine’s 2007 investigative article,
“Massachusetts legislators have been working with disability advocates for over twenty years to ban the use of shock (aversive) therapy with little results. Senator Joyce and Representative Scibak recently filed two bills to safeguard and delineate a narrow range of behavior problems where aversive therapy may be appropriate and would address many of the egregious scenarios described in the article such as children being painfully shocked for swearing.”

Even after the horrific video was released to the press of Andre McCollins being shocked for not taking off his coat has the Massachusetts Senator been successful in getting the Judge Rotenberg Center to stop using the devices.

A former teaching assistant, Gregory Miller started a petition to ban the tortuous devices and in his petition states,

“Andre McCollins strapped down on a restraint board by lock and key, and shocked repeatedly over seven hours.  It’s hard to watch but the video shows Andre, who has autism, being shocked for refusing to take off his coat. He was embarrassed that he had been forced to wear the clothes of another student that morning that he was concealing with his jacket, and people with autism sometimes have difficulty with change. Andre was shocked an additional 19 times that day for tensing his muscles while being tortured (tensing muscles reduces the amount of pain), and he was shocked 9 times for yelling and screaming for the shocks to stop, all in response to being shocked.  JRC listed “full body tense up” as a “health dangerous behavior”, and yelling and screaming – “Someone, help me, please!” as a “major disruptive behavior,” even though Andre was strapped to the board as this was happening!  The treatment that Andre received was not unique.”

It is very unfortunate to hear that Andre isn’t the only one that has suffered and continues to suffer. In an anonymous letter sent to Nancy Weiss, the former President of TASH, (and published here on Lydia Brown’s blog), the anonymous student had been humiliated and writes that JRC provoked his behaviors over a two month period by forcing him to wear diapers despite being independent in toileting and hygiene for years prior to attending JRC; and “sit in isolation with a straight upright posture, in the center of a hard restraint board, day after day, week after week, for two months;” by not letting him shower and continued his humiliation by strapping him to 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.” After being treated this way, the anonymous student’s behaviors were documented and taken by a JRC official to court to get permission to use a GED device on him. The student goes on to tell how he lived every day in fear and is now doing well in a new program that respects his feelings without being “drugged up like JRC claims [he] would be if he left.” Before asking TASH to investigate he writes, “I have gotten so much better from getting real help instead of constant punishment and pain.” However the nightmares remain with them even after leaving the center.

In fact, on the TASH website it states, “the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Center on Trauma-Informed Care calls for all behavioral intervention strategies to be guided by the understanding that people with behavioral challenges most likely have a history of trauma – and that violent responses to behaviors are not helpful and instead, make behaviors worse.”
JRC’s counter argument seems to remain the same over the years standing by their belief that they are doing good by getting the majority of their students off psychotropic drugs. Yet when viewing their website, no mention of GED devices or electric shocks are mentioned. One might wonder though, if contingent shocks are such a great method to improve behaviors then why don’t they let parent’s know about the GED devices before applying to the school by stating the information on their website?
Especially when the U.N.’s experts have publicly said that what JRC is doing is torture. Using electric current as a form of punishment isn’t allowed by law on terrorists or murderers but is allowed on children and teens at the Judge Rotenberg Center. Hopefully, with enough signatures the electric shock devices will be banned and more parents will be more cautious in sending their children to schools where students don’t have access to phone their parents on a daily basis without “paying” for phone calls.

Leslie Burby

Leslie Burby

Leslie Burby is the former Editor-in-Chief of Autism Parenting Magazine and a public speaker on autism related issues. She is the author of three autism related books: Emotional Mastery for Adult's with Autism (2013); Early Signs of Autism in Toddlers, Infants and Babies (2014); and the children's book Grace Figures Out School (2014).

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