Shock Tactics is yet another detailed account of the abuse carried out on people at the Judge Rotenberg Center. Over half the inmates at this institution are wired to a device called the GED that delivers painful electric shocks at the push of a button. At one time the use of electric shocks on severely disturbed children was given dubious justification by the life threatening severity of their self injurious behaviour. Better GED than dead as it were. The reporter, Jennifer Gonnerman, gives credence to this when she writes:
Before we set off on our tour of the institution, there’s something Israel wants me to see: Before & After, a home-made movie featuring six of his most severe cases. He has been using some of the same grainy footage for more than two decades, showing it to parents of prospective students as well as reporters. It shows how in 1977, an 11-year-old girl, Caroline, arrives at the school strapped on a stretcher, her head encased in a helmet. Next, free from restraints, she tries to smash her helmeted head against the floor. In 1981 it shows Janine, also 11, who shrieks and slams her head against the ground, a table, the door. Bald spots testify to the severity of her troubles; she’s yanked out so much hair it’s half gone. Compared with these scenes, the “after” footage looks almost unbelievable: Janine splashes in a pool; Caroline grins as she sits in a chair at a beauty salon.
“These are children for whom positive-only procedures did not work, drugs did not work,” says Israel. “And if it wasn’t for this treatment, some of these people would not be alive.” The video is very persuasive: the girls’ self-abuse is so violent and so frightening it almost makes me want to grab a GED remote and push the button myself. Of course, this is precisely the point.
Then she meets two of these “success stories. “
Considering how compelling the after footage is, I am surprised to learn that five of the six children featured in it are still here. “This is Caroline,” one of my escorts says later as we walk down a corridor. Without an introduction, I would not have known. Caroline, 39, slumps forward in a wheelchair, her fists balled up, head covered by a red helmet. “Blow me a kiss, Caroline,” Israel says. She doesn’t respond.
A few minutes later, I meet 36-year-old Janine, who appears in much better shape. She’s not wearing a helmet and has a full head of black hair. She’s also got a backpack on her shoulders and canvas straps hanging from her legs, the telltale sign that electrodes are attached to both calves. For 16 years – nearly half her life – Janine has been hooked up to Israel’s shock device. A few years ago, when the shocks began to lose their effect, the staff switched the devices inside her backpack to the much more painful GED-4.
The Judge Rotenberg Center no longer restricts itself to severely handicapped children who self harm. More “high functioning” individuals with a range of difficulties including ADHD and Bipolar Disorder get the same electric shock “treatment” for the most trivial “offences” like getting out their seat without permission.
Matthew Israel, the director and founder of the JRC claims to be a behaviourist in the tradition of B. F. Skinner, under whom he studied in the 1950s. He took up the idea of using electric shock from fellow behaviourist Ivor Lovaas. Lovaas no longer uses electric shocks because:
“These people are so used to pain that they can adapt to almost any kind of aversive you give them.”
Israel met the same difficulty. His answer was to turn up the power and use even more painful devices. What I want to know is how long are we going to put up with college educated professors telling us it OK to inflict pain on the most helpless and vulnerable people in society? Even Dr Bernard of the Maudsley Hospital in London is quoted in the article as saying,
It’s terrible to use something like that without clear evidence to show it works.
There have been attempts to close the JRC. But Israel has always relied on the tesimonials of satisfied parents, motivated by the fear that if JRC closes there is nowhere else for their children. It seems that the only criteria for admission is that you have been written off and rejected by everyone else. Once inside your fate is forgotten.
What I find most inexplicable is the support for JRC by ex inmates. Stockholm Syndrome maybe? This is Katie Spartichino:
Katie, 19, tells me she overdosed on pills at nine, spent her early adolescence in and out of psychiatric wards, was hooked up to the GED at 16, and stayed on the device for two years. “This is a great place,” she says. “It took me off all my medicine. I was close to 200lb and I’m 160 now.” But when she first had to wear the electrodes, she says: “I cried. I kind of felt like I was walking on eggshells; I had to watch everything I said. Sometimes a curse word would just come out of my mouth. So being on the GEDs and knowing that swearing was a targeted behaviour where I’d receive a [GED] application, it really got me to think twice before I said something rude.”
The most chilling part of the whole story is one of apparent tenderness.
As Katie speaks, LaChance runs her fingers through Katie’s hair again and again. The gesture is so deliberate it draws my attention. I wonder if it’s just an expression of affection – or something more, like a reward.
To me, LaChance’s action screams of an abusive relationship, Katie allowing herself to be treated like a child by someone who probably inflicted pain on her in the past. And when Katie admits that she sometimes still swears
The hair-stroking stops. LaChance turns to Katie. “I hope you’re not going to tell me you’re aggressive.”
The last time I heard that voice it was Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“Oh, no, that’s gone,” Katie says. “No, no, no. The worst thing I do sometimes is me and my mom get into little arguments.”
Poor Katie, still in fear of that voice, still in thrall. And she is one of the lucky ones. She got out.