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Remedy or abuse?

Controversy resurfaces over use of shock treatment at Canton school

A n investigative magazine article dubbing a Canton-based institution the "school of shock" has reignited efforts to pass legislation limiting the facility's use of skin shock and aversive therapy.

State legislators say the report in the September edition of Mother Jones has refocused the controversy surrounding the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, believed to be the only school in the country that gives children electric shocks as a form of treatment.

The 230-student facility treats children with autism, mental retardation, and emotional problems.

Senator Brian A. Joyce of Milton and Representative John W. Scibak of South Hadley are trying to move up hearings, now slated for January, on legislation that would limit aversive therapy to extreme cases of violent or self-injurious behavior, such as head banging or eye gouging, and create a special commission to regulate it.

Matt Israel, founder of the Rotenberg Center, acknowledges the controversy surrounding the use of shock therapy, but says the practice is crucial to treat severe mental illnesses. Israel said it is unfair of legislators to characterize the school's practices as unfettered because it is regulated by the Department of Mental Retardation, Department of Education, and Department of Early Education and Care, as well as judges in individual cases.

The Judge Rotenberg Center, which has students from at least seven states, is in Joyce's district. He said his staff has spent hundreds of hours researching the facility and its practices, including claims by critics that children are often shocked for relatively minor infractions such as cursing or speaking out of turn - behavior that, he said, is typical of most adolescents.

"The bottom line is, we have to protect some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society," Joyce said. "We need to eliminate or severely limit any future application of this barbaric treatment on innocent children."

Aversive therapy - which uses a system of positive and negative reinforcements based on psychologist B.F. Skinner's behavior modification theory - is banned in 10 states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island. Last year, Joyce filed a budget amendment to ban it in Massachusetts. It passed in the state Senate but not in the House.

Some state legislators, including Representatives Tom Sannicandro of Ashland and Barbara L'Italien of Andover, have denounced the institution's methods as cruel and outdated. Others say there are behaviors and illnesses that warrant shock therapy.

The release of the Mother Jones article is not the first time the Rotenberg Center has come under scrutiny. Massachusetts officials have investigated reports over the years that electric shocks delivered to misbehaving students caused burns on their arms, legs, or torsos. Regulators from New York, where more than half the students come from, have pressed the school to end electric shock.

The facility was also fined last year by the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure for falsely representing employees as licensed psychologists.

Israel told the Globe he thought the Mother Jones article, written by freelancer Jennifer Gonnerman, did a poor job of explaining the school's mission. He said that negative reinforcement for seemingly harmless behaviors is sometimes necessary for treatment, and that the article depicted certain incidents out of context.

"Sometimes in treating a behavior, you'll notice that it changes its form as it decreases in frequency," Israel said. "If you are treating someone who pulls hair out to the point of baldness, you'll pay attention when they are even pulling, tugging, or touching their hair. It may look innocuous, but if you don't treat it at that point in time, it will grow back to its original form."

"There are many well-intentioned people who oppose this form of therapy because they are unwilling to weigh the intrusiveness of it against the benefits," he said. "Just like any medical or dental procedure, you have to weigh the benefits and the risks."

Parents of children at the center also defend the treatment.

Marguerite Famolare's 19-year-old son, Michael Costello, has lived at the Rotenberg Center for six years. As a child, Michael was diagnosed with autism, mental retardation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.

Famolare, who lives in Boston, said her son spent years bouncing back and forth from private institutions and psychiatric hospitals, and was lethargic from prescription drugs.

"He was given no opportunities and just slept all of the time. He was sedated and treated like an animal, and that wasn't the life I wanted for him," said Famolare. "Now he goes to Red Sox games, and he has friends that he relates to. He's learned to communicate with people and how to express himself, because of what they've done for him."

Famolare said she has tested the electronic shock administered on her son, and likens it to a bee sting. She said her son shows some discomfort when shocked, but no signs of trauma.

"This is better than he die from kidney or liver problems developed from prescription drugs, because that's what would've happened," she said. "The pain from the shock is no more than the pain he would have suffered from needles put into him with high dosages of those psychotropic drugs."

Scibak, who has a doctorate in developmental disabilities and is the former director of a psychiatric institute, sponsors Joyce's bills, but opposes a full ban on shock therapy. There are, he says, times when it is appropriate.

"People say it's cruel and unusual punishment, but I've seen people biting their fingers or tongue off, or banging their head against a wall until it splits open," he said. "How can a parent sit back and just watch their child bite their extremities off? In those situations, it would be cruel and unusual not to use these procedures."

Just how much pain the shocks cause is a matter of some disagreement.

Sannicandro, who sits on the Legislature's Joint Committee for Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said he tested the shock treatment himself and compared it to being electrocuted.

"It was unbelievable pain that felt like it was going on forever," said Sannicandro, who has a 23-year-old son with Down syndrome. "I can't imagine subjecting my child to this. It would be like living in a hell."

The Mother Jones article described an environment where teachers were fearful of being attacked and of losing their jobs for not shocking students enough.

Gregory Miller, who worked as a Rotenberg Center teacher's assistant from 2003 to 2006, told the Globe that most teachers found the work unbearable. As a result, there was a high turnover rate, he said.

"You could just hear echoes of screams coming down the halls, all day long," said Miller, who will testify in favor of Joyce's bills. "The stress levels were incredible because every time someone jumped up from being shocked, everyone would scream as a reaction and in turn they would be shocked. It's dangerous to think of the level of stress caused by that constant fear."

Joyce said he has already gotten reaction from people who have read the Mother Jones article, and he is confident the bills to restrict the practice will pass before the end of this year.

"This Skinner pseudo-science from 50 years ago is not appropriate today," said Joyce. "It is curious that we don't inflict such punishment on serial killers or child molesters."

Erin Conroy can be reached at econroy@globe.com.

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