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January 2011



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By Candace Hall
Posted Apr 26, 2010 @ 05:41 PM

State Sen. Brian Joyce hopes that two ongoing investigations will bring more scrutiny to the practice of aversive therapy at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, spurring legislators to pass his bills that will more strictly regulate the practice.

The JRC is a private, public-funded school for special education children with severe challenges, including those who are developmentally delayed, autistic and emotionally disturbed. 

Both the state’s attorney general and the U. S. Department of Justice have been investigating the center after complaints about a 2007 incident at the center, as well as complaints from more than 30 disability groups. 

“We’ve seen horrible abuses, and family members have been interviewed, and I’m hopeful,” Joyce said.

The senator has been trying to ban the practice, which gives electric shocks and other pain-inducing treatments to students who have severe behavior problems, for about 10 years. He said the JRC is the only school in the country that uses this type of therapy.

The practice that Joyce most strongly objects to is shock therapy using a remotely controlled shock devise that is attached to the student through a fanny or backpack. According to a report of the New York State Educational Department, the students wear the devises for the majority of their sleeping and walking hours, and some are required to wear them during shower/bath time.  

Though JRC lawyers argue that aversive shock therapy is already heavily regulated, Joyce said it’s not enough. He said he has heard of children being shocked “hundreds, sometimes thousands for times,” with some children being burned through the shock treatment.

An alarming case

One of the most alarming cases, he said, was in 2007, when a person made a prank call to the school pretending to be a JRC staff member. Joyce said the caller ordered the staff to awaken two students who were shocked repeatedly while their arms and legs were bound. One of the students was burned 77 times over a period of three hours.

The incident led the state attorney’s office to investigative the incident, which is still ongoing.    Since then, the JRC has cooperated with law and state officials in every way, and a number of changes have been made to prevent a similar occurrence, said Michael Flammia, a lawyer for the JRC. 

Flammia also said students who undergo the process have to have parent permission, and approvals by a judge in a probate court, as well as a peer review committee and doctor before getting the treatment.

“It’s the most regulated form of therapy that exists,” he said.

But Joyce is not satisfied with current regulations, and he is pressing for more. His two bills aim to better control the aversive therapy, rather than ban it, which he thinks is a compromise that could sway house members to vote yes.

One bill would set up unified standards that specify the scope of techniques permissible under laws. The other bill would establish a commission to investigate electric shock therapy, as well as a peer review group, which would work with the states’ Department of Developmental Services to set up new standards.   Joyce said even though a peer group is currently involved with the approval process, it consists mostly of people who are affiliated with the JRC and he does not feel they provide adequate oversight.

“I want a true objective look at this – not a review by interested parties,” Joyce said.

Even though he is still in favor of banning shock therapy, Joyce said that he moderated his stance because he’s faced strong opposition in previous bills, including Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, D-Boston, who has a nephew who is a JRC student and receives shock therapy. He said that Sanchez has been an effective spokesperson for the aversive therapy, saying it’s the only method that can keep his nephew from harming, and even killing himself.

 Joyce feels that legislators have voted repeatedly against the ban, through the urging of Sanchez, and JRC supporters. Now, he thinks these two bills could be the compromise that spurs both the house and senate to pass his bills. 

“It’s a harder thing to argue against than the outright ban,” he said.

The new legislation has the support of many educators, including Alan Dewey, who oversees special education for the Canton School Department. He thinks there’s a need for the treatment because of severe cases that he’s seen, including a child who tried to take his own eyeball out with his thumb. But he also feels that there has to be stricter regulations enforced.

“It needs stronger oversight, so I think it’s a good bill,” he said. 

The school has about 220 students from seven states, including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida. About half those students receive aversive therapy.

Sen. Brian Joyce said that his legislation aims to limit aversive therapy to “just a few of the most extreme cases” performed with licensed clinicians, used only on self-abusive or dangerous kids.

But Flammia argued that there are some students who may not be dangerous to themselves or others, but are capable of disrupting classrooms, and are in need of the treatment.

 “If students were smashing computer on the ground, or disrobing, or screaming at the top of their lungs, they could not be treated,” he said.

Adding that the JRC treats the most serious behavior problems imaginable, Flammia said students on aversive therapy have been exposed to every other treatment possible. He said the only other alternatives have been to place the children on powerful psychotropic drugs, which had led to them being barely conscious during the day and in some cases becoming obese. JRC parents prefer aversive therapy to their children being heavily drugged, he said.

Whether or not the legislation is passed, the JRC is bound to be under intensive scrutiny as long as it continues aversive shock therapy. The U. S. Department of Justice’s investigation, launched this February, was spurred by letters from 31 different disability groups. The September 30 letter states that “almost every national disability organization agrees that the use of painful procedures to change a person’s behavior is unnecessary, inhumane, and should be banned.”

The center has also been the target of complaints and investigations by a number of state and out-of state agencies. Since the school was founded in 1971, the states of California and Rhode Island have withdrawn their students and passed forms of legislation banning aversive therapy in their own states. New Jersey has suspended any new referrals to the school.

“My hope is that these investigations will shed light on what is happening behind the walls of the JRC,” Joyce said.

Source:  http://www.wickedlocal.com/randolph/topstories/x43862937/Joyces-bills-would-curb-shock-treatments-at-Canton-school

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