Update (May 2011): Founder and director of Massachusetts “Shock School” resigns after being indicted on criminal charges. See below.
UN Calls Shock Treatment at
'Torture' Mass. School
School for Special Needs Students Defends Practice as Unharmful and Effective
By KATIE HINMAN and KIMBERLY BROWN
June 30, 2010—
It may look like any leafy New England campus, but inside one
school for special needs children, the method of teaching at work is anything but ordinary. Massachusetts
The Boston-area's Judge Rotenberg Center educates and treats enrollees ages 3 to adult, all of whom are struggling with severe emotional, behavior, and psychiatric problems, including autism-like disorders. And for about half of the 250 students here, undesirable behavior means getting hooked up to a special machine and administered an electric shock.
The skin shock treatment, used only after both a court and the student's parents have approved, has drawn criticism for years. But after the release of a recent study by Mental Disability Rights International, Rotenberg has come under the scrutiny of no less than theUnited, which is calling the school's practices "torture."
"To be frank, I was shocked when I was reading the report," said Manfred Nowak, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture. "What I did, on the 11th of May, was to send an urgent appeal to the
government asking them to investigate." U.S.
In a response to ABC News, the
wrote: "It is just as ridiculous to equate JRC's aversive therapy (which is court approved, on a case by case basis) with torture as it is to call a surgeon's knife cutting into flesh an 'assault with a dangerous weapon.' If a two-second shock to the surface of an arm or leg can stop a behaviorally disabled child from blinding himself through eye-gouging, from pulling out all of his own teeth or from starving himself to death, no sensible person would refuse to use such a humane treatment. The alternative is to be drugged into insensibility, restrained, secluded and warehoused in a state mental hospital--in effect, a form of living torture." Judge Rotenberg Center
In a 2007 interview with ABC, Matthew Israel, the doctor who runs the
and developed the shock treatment equipment, had his own take on the line between therapy and torture. "The real torture," Rotenberg Center said, "is what these children are subjected to if they don't have this program. They're drugged up to the gills with drugs that cause them to be so sedated that they essentially sleep all day." Israel
For about half of Rotenberg's students, a mix of adults and children, shock treatment is a regular part of life, meant to help teach them to stop hurting themselves or others. Their cases are extreme. Many here cannot speak. And many are real dangers to themselves, such as the child who would bite and bloody himself from his knuckles all the way up his arm, so that it looked as if he had scales, his mother said. Or another student who gouged out his own eye and blinded himself.
The treatment works by hooking the students up to electrodes worn on different parts of the body, which communicate with a small device carried around in a backpack or fanny pack. When the student engages in forbidden behavior, a staff member administers a shock. Some students wear the electrodes as much as 24-hours a day, seven days a week. And sometimes for years.
"The device is simply a device that administers a two-second shock to the surface of the skin that has absolutely no side effects and is extremely effective as a corrective procedure to encourage children not to show violent behavior, not to show self-abusive behavior,"
"I'm quite confident that the procedures here are all based firmly on the professional literature of behavioral psychology," said
, whose theory of reward and punishment is based on work he did studying under the psychologist B.F. Skinner at Harvard. Israel
Israel and his supporters say the school's system of reward and punishment is both appropriate and effective. When one student began his shock therapy, he repeatedly would hit himself over the head. And he had nearly starved himself to death. But thanks to the therapy, school officials and his parents believe, he has shown major improvements.
Another student, Mark Doherty started biting himself when he was seven or eight. Psychiatric drugs had rendered him zombie-like, often comatose and drooling, according to his mother. And years of other treatments were not effective. Fifty schools rejected him before he started at Rotenberg. The shock treatments he has received have made a difference, say his parents.
Mark, now 24, still lives at the center. But he is able join his family for picnics and at restaurants, a major success. And for the first time after the treatment started working, the Dohertys say, they can hug their son.
"When he stopped biting himself," said Linda Doherty, "when it went from 40 applications [of the skin shock] one week to 18 applications the next week, in my heart and soul I know it's the right thing for my son."
But Eric Rosenthal, an advocate for the disabled, disagrees. He says there are a wide range of other treatments available. "A person with a disability is vulnerable," he said, and should be considered distinctly different from an adult who chooses to undergo the treatment.
Rosenthal's recent report on the center's tactics is what spurred a United Nations official into action. For years after ABC first reported on Rotenberg in 2007, State Sen. Brian Joyce tried repeatedly to shut down the school, without success.
Now, after Rosenthal released his organization's report, the United Nations has become interested. "I've visited many countries where electric shocks are applied, unfortunately," said Nowak, the U.N. specialist. "Of course this is absolutely prohibited."
"This is torture,'' said Nowak. "Of course here they might say, but this is for a good purpose because it is for medical treatment. But even for a good purpose -- because the same is to get from a terrorist information about a future attack, is a good purpose. To get from a criminal a confession is a good purpose.
To Rosenthal, there are two factors for the Obama administration to consider; the
' international treaty obligations on torture, and President Obama's own reputation. "President Obama has staked his international reputation on ending torture and the world is now looking,'' said Rosenthal. "Are we gonna live up to our obligations and is President Obama gonna live up to his promise to end torture by the United States government?" United States
MindFreedom Update - Wednesday, 30 June 2010
UPDATES about ABC-TV coverage of psychiatric torture in
United Nations representative agrees that
institution's "pain therapy" is torture. USA
** ABC News just reported that a United Nations representative called JRC's use of pain on young people "torture," agreeing with a Mental Disability Rights International investigation, click here:
** ACTION: Be sure to e-mail Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick with your strong but civil thoughts about what the UN rep called "torture." HERE IS THE GOVERNOR'S WEB FORM:
** Psychiatric leader and Harvard professor Alan A. Stone complained today to MindFreedom about the below alert's use of the term "psychiatric torture." What do you think? Read about his dialogue with MFI's David Oaks on today's MFI blog entry here:
MDRI featured on ABC Nightline
MDRI documents torture against children and adults with disabilities living at a Massachusetts residential school and files "urgent appeal" to United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture
Washington, DC - June 30, 2010 - Mental Disability Rights International's (MDRI) latest report and "urgent appeal" to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, to demand the United States government end the torture of people with disabilities immediately,
will be the topic of tonight's ABC Nightline.
Torture not Treatment: Electric Shock and Long-Term Restraint in the United States on Children and Adults with Disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), documents the use of electric shocks on the legs, arms, torsos and soles of feet of children and adults with disabilities - for weeks, months and sometimes years. JRC uses punishments as treatment and US advocates have been trying for decades to close the school and end these practices.
Nightline host, Cynthia McFadden, interviewed MDRI Executive Director Eric Rosenthal, JD and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak for the piece.
Laurie Ahern, President of MDRI and author of the report, states, "The cruelty perpetrated against children and adults at JRC is psychological and physical abuse, couched in the name of 'treatment.' The severe pain and suffering leveled against residents there violates
the United Nations Convention against Torture."
MDRI is an international human rights organization dedicated to the rights protection and full participation in society of people with disabilities worldwide.
ABC Nightline airs at 11:30 pm EST, following your local news. Be sure and check your local listings.
Update: May 2011:
For more info:
* Read MDRI's investigation of
Judge Rotenberg Center:
* MindFreedom Blog:
mental health system stays still silent one month later! Massachusetts
See blog entry by David Oaks one month ago about
mental health system silence, which continues today: Massachusetts