Campaigners rallied in the rain outside the State House on Saturday to protest the use of painful electric shocks on children with developmental disabilities and psychiatric diagnoses — a cause that seemed as if it must have come from a different age or political regime, not enlightened 21st century Massachusetts.
Yet here it was, and here too were civil rights and disability advocates determined to persuade the Massachusetts legislature to support a budget amendment that bans the use of “aversives” on vulnerable students. Only one school in the country — the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton — is believed to administer such techniques. The State Senate voted May 23 to include the ban in the state budget, and it will go to the budget conference committee for consideration later this month.
Protestors held umbrellas in one hand, signs in the other: “The JRC tortures kids on your tax dollars!” An oversize puppet reared up above them, pressing a red button to simulate administering an electric shock.
For decades, the JRC has dodged legal and legislative challenges. Perhaps some who heard reports of its abuse assumed they were exaggerated — but that complacency ended this spring with the release of a chilling video showing Andre McCollins, who has autism, being restrained for seven hours and receiving 30 electric shocks after he refused to take off his jacket. Following the release of the video, media coverage and public outrage surged. “We are closer to shutting down this abusive facility than we have ever been,” announced Ari Ne’eman, of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the National Council on Disability, one of yesterday’s speakers.
“My son has never been the same (since the shock treatment),” said Cheryl McCollins, Andre’s mother, addressing the rally. McCollins, from Brooklyn, brought a civil suit against the JRC, leading to an undisclosed settlement in April. She said parents are lured by the school’s disavowal of psychotropic medications and don't realize the brutality of its alternative approach.
Senator Brian A. Joyce, who filed the amendment, told the crowd, “Under international law and the Constitution, we could not use this treatment on Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists.” The JRC is within his own district.
Tax records have revealed the JRC to be a lucrative business, taking in $52 million a year. Its residential placements cost roughly $200,000 per student and are publicly funded. Yet the “behavioral techniques” it practices are not grounded in science or medicine, and all leading disability organizations are opposed. The JRC’s methods have been outlined in profoundly disturbing testimony from Greg Miller, a former JRC employee. On Saturday, a British newspaper reported that the UN's special rapporteur on torture has formally approached the US government and is requesting an investigation of the school.
Yesterday Senator Joyce described the “army of lobbyists and lawyers” that descends on the State House whenever the JRC is threatened. Students with severe disabilities have testified before the legislature on its behalf, he said: “We later learned they were wearing those [electric shock] devices and if their testimony was not what they were supposed to say they would get an electric shock.” He asked that people contact the speaker of the House of Representatives and the members of the State Budget Conference Committee requesting their support for the amendment.
Following the rally, campaigners transferred to Canton and marched past the JRC, which occupies a line of tidy buildings behind green lawns and kinetic floral sculptures. Alice Brown, a local resident, likened the issue to the cause of civil rights in Birmingham — her hometown — in the 1950s: “This is the second time I’ve experienced this phenomenon. I live in the town of Canton and the state of denial.” In a letter to the Canton Citizen last week, she asked, “How long are we going to condone the horrors [at the JRC]?”
Also marching was Julie Morris, from Amesbury, who spent six weeks at the JRC as an adult. She did not receive electric shocks, but says staff members were physically abusive and threatened to kill her. “She still has trauma,” said her mother, Mary Ellen Morris.
Some parents have expressed satisfaction with the JRC’s approach. The history of autism, however, has brought forth plenty of well-intentioned parents defending interventions that have been shown in the end to do no good or actually cause harm. Medical and disability treatments cannot be determined by anecdote. Let’s hope that any Massachusetts politicians who are tempted to block the amendment will first subject themselves to the same treatment they are willing to sanction for these students.