Washington Post

Disabled children at Mass. school are tortured, not treated

By Laurie Ahern
Saturday, October 2, 2010; A13 

"We don't torture," President Obama said just days after taking office. Perhaps he is not aware of what is happening in his backyard -- to children with disabilities in Massachusetts.

During investigations into treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, detainees reported being short-shackled, verbally abused, isolated, hooded and threatened in ways designed to induce fear of injury, pain and death -- including threats that they might be tortured with electric shocks.

State reviews of the techniques used at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, Mass., and the center's Web site have cited skin shocks, shock chairs, shock "holsters," shackles and social isolation -- some of which are applied to school-age children.

Known as a school of last resort, this taxpayer-funded residential facility -- at more than $220,000 per child per year as of 2007, according to Mother Jones -- has a controversial history. Started by Matthew Israel, a devotee of the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, the school employs "aversive treatment," a program of behavior modification involving rewards and punishments.

Youths enrolled at JRC exhibit a variety of disabilities -- including attention-deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a New York State Department of Education report -- emotional problems, and criminal and abuse histories. Forty-seven percent of the 213 residents were approved by the court for "Level III aversives," which include shock, according to a Massachusetts state review published in July. These painful punishments are used on anyone who does not respond adequately to "positive" interventions only.

JRC eschews medication -- its Web site notes that "Parents who strongly believe that their child requires the use of psychotropic medication and who are not interested in trying an approach [that] avoids or minimizes such medication, are encouraged to consider enrolling their child in such programs rather than in JRC" -- and traditional therapies, arguing that no other treatment can control children suffering from the most severe behaviors. Its examples include youths who have pulled out their own adult teeth, who have set fires or who bang their heads so much they have dislodged their retinas. Parents and the Massachusetts Probate Court must approve the punishments it administers as treatment.

But even if such practices are effective -- which is questionable -- neither courts nor parents should be permitted to subject children with disabilities to such severe levels of pain.

How powerful are the shocks administered at JRC? Around 1990, Israel invented a machine, which he calls the Graduated Electronic Decelerator, that emits a two-second shock at 15.5 milliamps. A stronger version, the GED-4 at 45 milliamps, was later made for those who become inured to the pain. By comparison, stun guns used by police deliver one to four milliamps. (Boston magazine reported in 2008 that Israel himself says the shocks are "very painful.")

Those approved for "aversives" -- JRC has 140 school-age children; some enrolled have become adult residents -- carry these devices in backpacks with electrodes attached to their arms, legs, feet, fingertips and torsos, and staff members administer the shocks remotely. Students, some of whom have been shocked this way for years, and in some cases for decades, don't know where on their bodies they will receive a jolt. The July Massachusetts report noted that as of April, six residents were receiving an average of more than 10 shocks a week. Reasons for the use of "Level III aversives" include picking food off the floor and spilling drinks.

In April, our organization filed a report with Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, charging that the severe pain and suffering being inflicted on children violates the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Although JRC has pledged to review use of Level III aversives for "any seemingly minor behavior" cited by the Massachusetts review ("such as ignoring directions from staff, out of seat, leaving supervised area, eating food off of floor, etc."), in a lengthy reply to our report on its Web site it said: "There is no credible evidence that for these most severe forms of behavior disorders, there is any other pharmacological or psychological treatment that can treat these students as effectively as JRC's treatment." But consider Nowak's reaction to our findings:

"To be frank, I was shocked," he told ABC's "Nightline" in June, and sent "an urgent appeal to the U.S. government asking them to investigate." Asked if JRC's treatments constitute torture, Nowak responded, "Yes . . . I have no doubts about it. It is inflicted in a situation where the victim is powerless. And, I mean, a child in the restraint chair, being then subjected to electric shocks, how more powerless can you be?" Would the practices employed at JRC be allowed on a convicted terrorist? Nowak: "No, of course not."

"This is torture," he said. "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."

What is being justified as beneficial for children with disabilities at JRC is clearly torture, not treatment, and the Obama administration must act immediately to end these egregious abuses.

The writer is president of Disability Rights International and lead author of the report "Torture not Treatment: Electric Shock and Long-Term Restraints in the United States on Children and Adults with Disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center." Her e-mail address is lahern@mdri.org.


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