Parents, teachers, lawyers and advocates testified for hours Tuesday at a public hearing over whether controversial shock therapy treatments should be banned at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton.
State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez stood behind his disabled nephew Brandon in a State House hearing room, their hands entwined. The lawmaker restrained the 32-year-old as he swayed and groaned.
To their left stood two caretakers from Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, a residential school and treatment program for disabled people with behavior problems. One held Brandon’s black backpack that can send electric shocks to his hands or feet with the push of a button, a treatment Sánchez said has kept his nephew alive.
“No matter what anyone tells you, you can’t stop this,” said Sánchez, a Brookline Democrat, as Brandon slapped himself in the face. “To outright ban shock therapy would kill Brandon.”
The personal demonstration before the Legislature’s Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday was part of an emotional day of testimony from Sánchez and others on three bills related to the controversial use of “aversive” therapy, which includes shock therapy. The bills offered a range of controls over the therapy from licensure for behavior analysts, oversight of aversive treatments and an outright ban on such treatments.
Should shock therapy such as that used at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton be more tightly regulated?(poll)
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During the hearing, parents, lawyers and advocates for the disabled argued that shock therapy is unnecessary and cruel “torture,” and in need of greater oversight. When their turns came, former Rotenberg students, parents, staff members and lawyers said it is an effective last option for emotionally or mentally challenged people when other forms of therapy have failed.
The Rotenberg Center is the only school in the country that uses electric shock therapy to modify behavior.
Representatives from the center, where 60 percent of the 193 residents are children, said that aversive therapy is used only after a court determines that it can be used.
Students like Brandon Sanchez wear “GEDs,” or Graduated Electronic Decelerators, in backpacks. Wires connect the GEDs to straps around the arm or leg and deliver a two-second, surface-level shock to the student as part of the behavioral treatment.
In an interview last week, Dr. Matthew Israel, the founder and director of the Judge Rotenberg Center, said shock therapy is essential to the center’s treatment programs, and does not have harmful side effects.
“It would be a shame for handicapped children to be deprived of what is a life-saving therapy,” he said.
Opponents, however, said less invasive forms of treatment are preferable.
“It’s an inconvenient truth: 44 or 45 states in the country treat children and adults without this kind of barbaric treatment,” said Matthew Engel, senior attorney with the Disability Law Center in Northampton.
Engel said he’s experienced the shock treatment, which “was an experience from hell.”
In 2007, the Canton school made headlines after a prank caller, posing as a school supervisor, ordered 77 shocks on a student over three hours.
Jean Flatley-McGuire, an assistant secretary at the state Office of Health and Human Services, said the center has been “extremely cooperative” in responding to changes recommended after a state review. Those changes included revising how restraints are used and a decrease in use of electric shocks.
The committee heard testimonials from parents, including Larissa Goldberg, who said her 28-year-old son, Andrew, found help at the Rotenberg Center after he was expelled from other schools for aggressive behavior. Golberg said the Center “has given him a new life.”
State Sen. Brian A. Joyce, D-Milton, sponsored two of the bills that would require more oversight. But he also supports the ban on shock therapy.
“If I am able to protect those children, my legislative career will have been worthwhile,” Joyce said, citing “burned, innocent, disabled children” as the reason he filed the bill.
“There are few certainties in life, but I am certain that what this place is doing is wrong,” he said.