Later Tuesday state representatives will hear a proposal for a ban on 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 attempts to shut it down by lawmakers, parents and advocates of the disabled, who say the practice amounts to the torture of children.
Jeffrey Sanchez is a state representative whose nephew has severe mental retardation.
"There is no cure for what Brandon has," Sanchez said.
"The only options to keep my nephew alive were one locking him up in a padded cell and drugging him up, and that did not guarantee that my nephew would not kill himself."Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, whose nephew has severe mental retardation
Brandon is non-communicative and is a danger to himself.
"The only options to keep my nephew alive were one locking him up in a padded cell and drugging him up, and that did not guarantee that my nephew would not kill himself, either by biting off his tongue, biting holes through his cheek and ruminating 'til his esophageal tube would burn," he said.
Sanchez said 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 aversive therapy. According to Sanchez, 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.
Inside The Judge Rotenberg Center
Glenda Crookes is director of the Rotenberg Center and gives a tour on a recent afternoon.
"They do computer work, book work and group lessons, we also have special subject teachers, social studies science, Spanish, they get pulled out and work with them on a one to one basis," Crookes said. "They may come here, they haven’t been to school in years, 17 years old functioning in the third or fourth grade, but within a short period they may jump several grade levels, so our academic program is pretty amazing."
Inside, the center looks a bit like a wonderland — brightly colored sculptures adorn the walls. There are several arcades, a snack bar, a hair salon. There’s even a yellow brick road that runs through the main hall here, what Crookes said they call "the rewards street."
"It’s amazing, we have a movie theater, an Internet café, a contract store where kids can spend their money and points, we have a huge after-school activities program, so this is full after school and it’s just fun," she said.
The entire program at the Rotenberg Center is based on rewards and punishments. If students do not misbehave they can build up points so they can play in the arcade, buy candy, or go on field trips with their teachers.
They will lose those privileges for resorting to behaviors that got them into the school in the first place.
About one-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 two-second shock.
What Does A Skin Shock Feel Like?
That's what happens to Lian Emmick. She came here when she was 17 because no other place would take her — she was too violent, said her mother, Lauren Emmick.
"She has sent people to the hospital numerous times, she has had so many restraints that both of her knees needed surgery, but because she was so aggressive [you] couldn’t be in a car with her alone," Emmick said. "She's attacked me in the car, she's bit me, pulled my hair, she tried to jump out of car. She couldn’t learn she couldn’t do anything, she needed to be isolated because she was just dangerous."
"There are other ways to keep people safe without hurting them."Hillary Cook, former JRC student
On a recent afternoon, Emmick visits Lian in a class where she's placing jelly beans into little plastic eggs. The eggs will be given out as rewards for other students. Emmick is beaming at her daughter's progress. I ask Lian, who is now 20, about the electrodes attached to her arms and her torso.
"So they stay on you, you sleep with them too?" I ask her.
"Yeah, I do. It hurts, it's like a little bee sting," she said.
"It did not feel like a bee sting, it felt like an extreme piercing pain," said Hillary Cook, who was sent to the Rotenberg Center when she was 17 because of her violent behavior.
"There are other ways to keep people safe without hurting them, you don’t get people to stop hurting themselves by hurting them," Cook said.
A Former JRC Student Makes Her Case Against Skin Shock Therapy
Cook said she was not given a choice on whether to attend the school — it was either there or jail. Now studying art, she said she lived in a state of fear for the three years she attended JRC — that’s because she said the shocks were used randomly.
"The shocks were used most of the time on things that didn’t make sense, especially for the kids on the lower autistic spectrum, the kids that couldn’t speak up for themselves," she said. "In the case of the higher functioning students, a lot of the times they would get shocks for swearing or just saying 'no,' it wasn’t just for hurting people, it was for not doing things people wanted you to do."
"I’m enraged that we allow this barbaric practice on disabled children in Massachusetts," said Brian Joyce, a state senator whose district includes Canton, where the center is located. He's introducing a bill to prohibit aversive therapy using electric shock. The proposal is one of several attempts over the years to ban the practice.
"No other state in the union lets this happen, the [United Nations] has ruled that this is torture. 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, Mass., 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.