Editor's note: The audio includes the sound of a teenager undergoing electric shock treatment.
In the early 2000s, Cheryl McCollins enrolled her son Andre, who has autism and other developmental disabilities, in the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts.
She never thought that in 2002, her child would be restrained by multiple staffers, tied to a gurney and shocked 31 times. His punishment for misbehaving — staffers’ justification for administering the shocks — left him catatonic.
The video of the incident, which went viral in 2012, documents a panicked Andre screaming in pain and pleading with the workers to stop shocking him.
The footage remains traumatic for McCollins to hear, but she wants people to listen in order to spread her message against electric shock therapy and the Judge Rotenberg Center.
As of last month, the Judge Rotenberg Center will continue to be the only school, hospital or residential facility in the U.S. allowed to use electric shock as a therapy for its residential students with cognitive and emotional disabilities.
The ruling is the latest chapter in a decades-long battle between disability activists, parents and former students who call the treatments traumatizing and abusive, and a group of parents and administrators who say the shocks are a life-saving last resort to "correct aggressive or self-harming behavior in adults and children."
MassLive reporter Heather Morrison has covered the story for years. She says students wear backpacks equipped with electrical stimulation devices around the clock. Workers at the residential school employ the shocks using a remote control device when the students display a range of unwanted behaviors.
School administrators and some parents say the devices are a life-saver — used to deter behaviors that are dangerous or life-threatening.
“Recently, an attorney told me that it was used to help one person stop banging their head to the point where their retinas detached,” Morrison says.
Others, however, have complained to Morrison that the shocks can be administered for minor transgressions. She describes a conversation she had with a former JRC resident who still has PTSD as an adult.
“She was shocked for simply standing up because she had to use the bathroom and she did not have permission to do so,” Morrison says.
In another well-documented 2007 incident, a former student made a prank call to the center, posing as a supervisor and ordering shock treatments on two teenagers there. One student received 77 shocks; the other got 29. At that point, while not acknowledging fault, the center’s founder, Matthew Israel, stepped down from running the residential school.
But many parents remain devoted to the center. They say the school is a safe place for kids for whom there are no alternatives — many of whom have been removed from other facilities.
Disabilities advocates have told Morrison that it’s true that there are few options — but that is because of a lack of effort on the part of public health and educational authorities in the state and beyond.
“Advocates are coming in and saying that Massachusetts has a responsibility to step up and help these families find these other options,” she says.
Starting in 2014, one online petition against the use of electric shock as therapy spread rapidly and garnered more than 300,000 signatures. And the most recent push to have the FDA ban the treatments began in 2016. It succeeded in March 2020 when the FDA granted a ban, writing that the devices cause “a number of significant psychological and physical risks” including “worsening of underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, pain, burns and tissue damage.”
The ban, however, was short-lived. A federal appeals court last month overturned the decision in July, saying the ban exceeded the FDA’s authority.
The FDA has not responded to Morrison’s inquiries about whether there will be an appeal. Advocates tell her they hope the federal agency will push to have it reinstated. Meanwhile, many demand that Massachusetts make reparations to shock therapy survivors and halt all other aversive therapies, she says.
Andre’s mom McCollins is one of many who would like to see the shock treatment end and survivors receive reparations. She wants the school shuttered and criminal charges filed.
“Let's say he was having erratic behavior and I tied him down and I shocked him until he went into a coma,” she says. “What would happen to me? I would be all over the news.”
She once believed the school and the behavior modification treatments would be a lifesaver for her son: The center was on the Board of Education’s approved list, she says, and when they first walked into the Judge Rotenberg Center, staffers seemed “humane.”
Plus, McCollins says she thought she was speaking with psychiatrists and psychologists, but during the hearings following her lawsuit found out that most were clinicians.
“They inform you about this device, but they don't inform you on how they're going to use it on your child,” she says. “You don't find out what happens until your child is in the program.”
McCollins is also critical of the way students at JRC are too quickly removed from medications which are often critical to their well-being.
“My son only came in on one medication, but he needed that medication,” she says. “That medication wasn't replaced with therapy — it was replaced with shock.”
On that fateful day in 2002, McCollins got a call from the school saying Andre “had a bad day.” The following day, when she called him, he was unintelligible. It was then that she headed from New York to Massachusetts, where she describes her son as catatonic. She brought him to Boston Children’s Hospital where he was admitted.
McCollins then returned to the JRC and demanded to see the video of what had happened to her son. She witnessed her son on tape refusing to take off his coat. After a few shocks, he tensed up — a behavior the staff there deemed unacceptable under the center’s policy. He was given nearly 30 more shocks as he screamed in pain and asked them to stop.
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What struck many who saw the viral video — which McCollins fought to have released for nine years — was that Andre seemed reasonable in the moment. McCollins says her son was trying to “bring some sanity” to those workers. After being discharged from the hospital she did not return him to the school.
McCollins says she later learned that the school had a list of behaviors for which they would shock children — a list that was never made public to the parents or students themselves.
“So how are they supposed to know what you're shocking them for?” she asks.
To the parents who believe the Judge Rotenberg Center is the only option, McCollins has a firm response: “There are places that have proven that you do not have to torture your child, shock your child, to get them to behave.”
This segment aired on August 12, 2021.