Judge Rotenberg Center – Close it Down!

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.


12 thoughts on “Judge Rotenberg Center – Close it Down!

  1. Why do the survivors praise JRC? Simply put, they are still under their parents’ control. Unlike the UK’s more enlightened system, people with disabilities in the United States do not automatically gain the status of adults with full civil rights when they turn 18 years old; their parents can go to a judge, present proof of their disability (often this is a very perfunctory showing), and get an order for continuing guardianship. In many cases, adults with disabilities remain under their parents’ custody and control for their entire lives.

    Their parents already sent them to JRC once, and they know it can happen again if they don’t give the “right” answers, so they say whatever their parents and the JRC staff want them to say.

    Amanda Baggs has described such people as living in a “disability gulag,” and I agree with her.

  2. Ms. Gonnerman’s article “School of Shock,” which appears in the September/October issue of the Mother Jones magazine, is an entirely one-sided and biased account of the court- and parent-approved behavior modification therapy used at the Judge Rotenberg Center to successfully treat, without drugs, severe (sometimes life-threatening) behavior problems of children and young adults with special needs that have not responded to any other form of treatment. For readers who would like to hear the other side of this story, please see http://www.judgerc.org/ResponsetoGonnermanArticle.pdf

  3. You guys got it all wrong, we should EXPAND this program. Heck, it works for autistics, ADHD, why not bed-wetting, non conformist behaviour, left wing political leanings? We could bolt on an addition to the Huntington Learning Centers here in the US (basically a private tutoring company). The possibilities are just endless!

    Sorry, for the pun, but it is shocking that a place like this can exist in a first world 21 Century country…

  4. Yeah Mr. Israel, you always say it’s about the life-threatening stuff, and the “severe” stuff, but then you guys use the devices on just about anyone for just about anything, so that doesn’t end up holding up, it’s like you drag out the “worst behavior in the world” sorts of stories to distract people and then never explain why the devices are being used on others.

    I’ve seen the video you guys use to convince parents that any of their children’s legitimate complaints about the place are actually invalid, too. The one that invites parents to use behavior modification techniques to keep children from exhibiting what you essentially compartmentalize as “complaining behaviors,” and that subtly encourages them to view all this as them taking part in their children’s “treatment”, and to view any of the complaints as actually being about something else, because of course you guys don’t do anything unethical there, supposedly.

    One of my current staff people used to work at that place, you know. In one of the areas for “higher functioning” people. And even there she didn’t like what she saw and left pretty quickly. I know people who’ve walked in there for job interviews, taken one look, been unable to stand what they saw, and walked right out again.

    Funny thing is, I blogged about that little propaganda video you give parents to teach them to brainwash their children to only say good things about the JRC. I’d written to other people about it before, pointed it out to people, and so forth. The minute I blogged about it in public, though, that video disappeared from your website.

    These “aversives” don’t only go on in your institution, of course. They go on in lots of them. Yours is just one of the slickest and best-organized.

    For a long time I’d have been well within your guys’ estimation of who’s a candidate for that torture you call treatment. Banging my head once every second or two for hours on end. You know what got me to stop? Respect, being treated like a real person, and being taught things by people who’d been where I’d been. Which you do not show an iota of to your “students”. You just program them, and in your slick “We’re doing it for their own good” presentation you remind me a lot of the guy who used to hit me “for my own good” and call it treatment. Sorry, but torture isn’t treatment.

  5. This is just plain awful. I can’t believe that we, as Americans, are letting things like this happen. My soul is wounded, and I am very disappointed in my country-men for not taking a more active role in getting this place shut down.

  6. I can’t believe that we, as Americans, are letting things like this happen.

    According to a book I read on torture, few people in any country want to believe it goes on in their country, but it usually does. And it’s always done by the wonderful fine upstanding citizens to all the non-persons, whoever those two groups might be in any given country.

    For anyone interested, Why Students Praise the Judge Rotenberg Center was my post about that little video they took off the web right after I posted it. Comments by ex-employees and such are down the page a bit.

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