BOSTON — The psychologist who founded a controversial center for treating children and adults with difficult behavioral problems has been ordered to resign. Prosecutors accused Matthew Israel of interfering with an investigation of the Judge Rotenberg Center. The center, based in Canton, is one of the only institutions in the country that uses skin shock treatments to control behavior.
Israel started the Judge Rotenberg Center nearly 40 years ago. It’s been mired in controversy much of that time, because it uses an unorthodox approach to treating people with severe behavioral problems.
More than half of the 200 patients wear electrodes attached to their skin. And when they misbehave, staff members can use a remote control device to shock them.
Recently, a grand jury investigated the center for mistakenly shocking two patients. Prosecutors in the attorney general’s office say Israel interfered with their investigation. Israel was arraigned Wednesday on charges of obstructing justice.
Israel pleaded not guilty, but he and the center struck a deal with the state’s attorney general’s office. Under something called “deferred prosecution,” prosecutors will put the case on hold if Israel resigns and cuts ties with the school. If Israel violates this five-year probation, he and the center could face prosecution again.
Attorney General Martha Coakley said her main goal was to remove Israel.
“We think that is the most important result we will accomplish,” she told reporters after the arraignment. “We will now have some transparency and some ability to take a look at the safeguards that are in place at the Judge Rotenberg Center going forward.”
Coakley wants safeguards to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2007, when someone called the center pretending to be a staff member. The trickster named two teenage patients and said they were misbehaving and should be punished. The patients were given dozens of shock treatments that night.
Prosecutors say Israel ordered his employees to destroy surveillance videos documenting what happened. Israel’s lawyer, however, said he cooperated with the investigation. He showed them the original video, and later taped over it because he thought the investigation was over.
“The reason he has not admitted to committing any offense is because he has not committed any offense,” said his attorney, Max Stern. “He should not have been indicted.”
Stern said Israel agreed to step down for the sake of the school.
“It’s not good for any school to be investigated,” Stern said.
The center has agreed to hire a former judge to investigate its practices. Coakley hopes this will explain what happened the night the two teens were inappropriately shocked.
“We are not saying the JRC has to close down,” she said. “We are not saying that JRC can’t continue. But we believe there was such a breach of trust and and faith that night, and in our investigation afterward trying to determine what happened. My job is to make sure that the citizens of this commonwealth are kept safe.”
But supporters of the center say they don’t feel any safer now that Israel is gone. They’ll miss his expertise, and they feel demonized. Many of them confronted Coakley outside the courthouse.
“Did you ever visit JRC? Did you ever visit to see for yourself, what we have there?” asked Marie Washington, of the Bronx.
“I did not,” Coakley said.
She agreed to visit and stay in touch with the parents.
Washington’s son has lived at the center for more than 20 years.
“He’s autistic with very severe, bizarre, aggressive behaviors,” Washington said. “He wouldn’t be able to survive anywhere else. It would have been nice for my husband and I to keep him in New York, but he’s alive and he’s safe.”
Washington said Coakley should have visited the center to see for herself, and she accused the attorney general of having a vendetta against Israel.
“Plus, people like the attorney general don’t understand what it is to have a person in your family like my son, that you cannot keep at home. The most thing I want is his safety, and he’s safe there.”
Washington said he’s safe thanks to Matthew Israel, and she doesn’t know what the center will be like without him.