Lawmakers Consider Ban on Shock Treatment For Children

WBUR's Rachel Gotbaum reports that state lawmakers will hear proposals today to ban so-called "skin shock" or aversive therapy for children attending the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton.

The JRC is the only known school in the country that offers the skin shocks, which supporters say not only help developmentally disabled children lead normal lives but also keeps many of these children (who injure themselves and others) alive. Over the years the center has been a target of numerous lawsuits, and also attempts to shut it down by lawmakers, parents and advocates of the disabled who say the practice amounts to the torture of children.

One child who has received the shock treatments, according to the report, is the nephew of state Representative Jeff Sanchez:

Sanchez says 20 years ago when Brandon was 12, he was moved to the Judge Rotenberg Center, where he was one of the first children to receive so-called skin shock...or aversive therapy. Sanchez says the electric shocks have kept his nephew alive:

"When he starts to ruminate — meaning when you vomit into your mouth and then you chew and then you swallow and chew and vomit again — the application is given, and it stops him from doing it. It's as simple as that."

Brandon still lives at the center, and still receives this treatment. The JRC is often considered the last resort for children and adults who range from being emotionally disturbed to severely autistic . It's the only school in the U.S. that's known to offer shock therapy as a way to modify sometimes violent and bloody behavior. Students come from districts across the country.

There are some disturbing bits in the piece. For instance, Rachel reports that about "a third of the students here wear small electrodes attached to their skin. When they begin to act out—sometimes violently towards themselves or others—they can be zapped remotely with a 2-second shock." One former student, Hillary Cook, describes it as "extreme piercing pain."

Proposals to ban the shock therapy aren't new. Still, Rachel reports that state Sen. Brian Joyce, whose district includes Canton, where the Rotenberg Center is located, will introduce a new bill to prohibit the practice.

"No other state in the union lets this happen. The UN has ruled that this is torture," Joyce said. "We wouldn’t be able to do this to the most heinous of criminals pursuant to the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and yet it goes on in Canton, Massachusetts at the JRC."

Attorneys for the JRC say the center — which has successfully won court cases in the past — will challenge any attempt to ban skin shock therapy.

Besides the proposals before the Legislature, the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services is also considering barring electric shocks at the Rotenberg Center for new students. The agency is expected to make a decision by September.

This program aired on July 26, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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