Stop Electric Shock Therapy on Autistic Children Now!

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Mass. House Blocks Latest Attempt To Restrict Electric Shocks In Canton
By Jay Turner, the Canton Citizen.

A 20-year legislative odyssey aimed at ending the practice of electric skin shock treatment at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton will apparently continue, after the latest proposal, sponsored by State Senator Brian Joyce (D) of Milton, recently stalled in a conference committee after facing opposition from members of the House.

Attached to the 2009 state budget as Amendment EHS 874, the measure had previously passed the Senate and was being hailed by Joyce as a true compromise between an outright ban and the current requirement that the school get permission from a state probate court before administering shocks to any of its students.

We have been stymied by the House and it's incredibly frustrating, said Joyce in a telephone interview on Friday.

The legislation, authored by Joyce and Representative John Scibak (D), a licensed psychologist, would have limited the controversial treatment to cases in which the student's behavior presented an immediate risk of serious physical injury or harm to self or others, and only after all other useless intrusive treatments had proved unsuccessful.

Currently, the Rotenberg Center, which treats both high- and low-functioning students with behavior problems, employs the two-second electric shocks to address a range of behaviors, including some that the JRC admits might seem too innocuous if viewed out of context, such as mumbling, deliberately providing a wrong answer, and getting out of ones seat without permission.

According to its website,, the school as of August 2007 was using skin shock treatment on 43 percent of its 154 school-age students, as well as 85 percent of its 65 adult residents, most of whom are lower functioning. JRC also uses other behavior modification techniques, including water spraying, known as sensory punishment, and movement limitation as a form of physical punishment.

I think what they're doing there is wrong, Joyce said. I think that innocent children are being harmed.

In addition to pointing a finger at JRC founder Matthew Israel, Joyce said he also faults House leadership for repeatedly blocking attempts to ban what he considers to be barbaric acts committed on the most vulnerable citizens, including many with autism and mental retardation.

Joyce himself has now been rebuffed twice in three years, including in 2006 when he went for an all-out ban, a proposal that also died in a conference committee after passing the Senate.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the JRC has a powerful ally in Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, whose nephew attends the school and has reportedly benefited from skin shock treatment. In fact, according to a State House News Service report, Sanchez's nephew hit himself repeatedly during a January legislative hearing, and then Sanchez, after restraining him, stated that the treatment has kept [the child] alive.

Meanwhile, Joyce, who was recently honored as Legislator of the Year by the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council, has vowed to continue to push this issue until children in Canton and at some of the JRC nearby residential facilities are no longer shocked.

The government has a fundamental duty to protect vulnerable populations, he said in a press release, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a moral imperative to address this issue once and for all.

It isn't just the treatment that has the senator concerned, either. He pointed to an incident last August that made national headlines, in which staff members wrongfully shocked two students dozens of times after being ordered to do so by a caller posing as a supervisor. The caller was later determined to be a former JRC student.

Citing a story printed in the Boston Globe, Joyce pointed to the fact that surveillance tapes of the incident were shown to investigators, but that school officials later destroyed the tapes despite being instructed to preserve them.

The story also reported that State Police in May seized boxes of documents from JRC offices as part of a yearlong grand jury investigation into the prank call incident led by the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley. The Globe quoted an unnamed source who said the investigation Chad an ambitious scope and involves multiple government agencies.

Joyce also detailed other alleged horrors in a press release, including children receiving second degree burns from the skin shocks, and children who have been shocked as many as 5,000 times in one day.

We don't allow shock therapy on our prisoners and we should not allow it to be used on innocent children, he said in the press release. We have an obligation to stop the unfettered use of shock therapy on a very vulnerable group of disabled children and adults.

July 24, 2008