By Laurie Ahern
Saturday, October 2, 2010; A13
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
Known as a school of last resort, this taxpayer-funded residential facility
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
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
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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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