Aversive Therapy. Two words that send chills down the spines of almost every special needs parent I know. In the world of behavior modification, just like in regular parenting, there are two approaches: the carrot and the stick. If rewards are the carrot, aversives are the stick.
Aversive therapies have come under fire recently as more parents have become aware of the wide range of practices in use at both public and private schools. In my post 12 Worst Education Moments of 2011, I highlighted some of them: vinegar-soaked cotton balls shoved into the mouths of autistic children, a child stuffed into a duffel bag and left in a hallway, and outright bullying by teachers and aides.
Aversive therapy isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I use “No Bite” nail polish for one of my daughters, to help her remember not to bite her nails. She’s trying to grow them out, and asked me to buy it to help her overcome this habit. Bad-tasting nail polish is an “aversive.”
But when aversive therapies go unchecked, it can take the form of torture. A specialized school for special needs children and adults is under investigation after a video surfaced of a disabled teen being tied face-down to a board and being subjected to electric shock therapy for seven hours.
Fox News in Boston reports that the boy’s mother, Cheryl McCollins, said that the entire ordeal was recorded by classroom cameras at the Judge Rotenberg Center, a Canton, Mass. facility that provides day school and residential school .
“This is worse than a nightmare. It is horrific. And poor Andre, who had to suffer through this, and not know why.”
The video shows that each time Andre McCollins screamed or tensed up, he was shocked. Throughout the seven hours, he was given no food, water, or bathroom breaks, and was shocked 31 times. After the ordeal, Andre remained in a coma-like state for three days, and was unable to eat or drink. He was taken to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where he was diagnosed with acute stress response to the shocks, his mother said.
The events happened in October 2002, but a lawsuit is still underway.
On its website, The Judge Rotenberg Center refers to this kind of treatment as “supplemental intensive therapy (aversive therapy).”
JRC’s website includes a film where it explains their use of an electric shock device worn by students and operated by remote control by staff members. The film explains that it obtains parents approval (which can be revoked at any time) and the approval of a court probate judge before aversives are used. The use of aversives are also pre-approved by a physician, a psychiatrist, peer review committe, and a human rights committee.
JRC utilizes a system of private digital video and recording system, allowing supervisors to be reviewing what goes on in each classroom, which is how Ms. McCollins was able to see what had happened with her son.
According to the film, the video system “ensures that staff members carry out the treatment program correctly at all times.”
Ms. McCollins has asked for the video to be made public, but JRC has asked a judge to keep the video sealed, saying that it would be unsettling for viewers who didn’t understand the context. The judge agreed, and the video is now under a protection order.
According to JRC’s film, the school implements the electric shock treatment to correct extremely self-injurious behavior, or extremely aggressive behavior that puts others in danger. The system is only used when rewards alone are not working.
In the film, JRC founder Dr. Matthew Israel describes the treatment as a ”brief, safe and harmless procedure in the form of a two-second shock to the surface of the skin. This procedure feels like a two-second bee sting, has no side effects, is used only once per week on average, is eventually removed from any students when they no longer need it, and eliminates the need for drugs and restraints.”
The video goes on to show success stories of adults who underwent the GED device program, and parents of current students extolling the virtues of the GED device. Dr. Israel also emphasizes that JRC accepts many patients that have been rejected by other schools and programs, emphasizing the “last resort” nature of the treatment at the facility.
A scientific paper authored by Dr. Israel, describes the electric shock device, which was designed by and for the center. The device can be attached to the student’s arm, leg, torso, finger, or the bottom of the foot. In the paper, Dr. Israel notes that ”frequent use increases the likelihood of adaptation,” meaning that the more frequently an electric shock is administered, the more likely it is that the individual develops a tolerance for it.
One has to wonder, if repeated use isn’t helpful, and if supervisors are constantly monitoring classrooms for appropriate use, why was Andre McCollins shocked 31 times over seven hours?
Dr. Israel stepped down from his position as the school’s Executive Director in July 2011. The facility’s website quotes Dr. Israel as saying, “I am now almost 78 years old, and it is time for me to move over and let others take the reins.”
According to the Fox News report, Dr. Israel didn’t “retire,” he was forced to step down in a pre-trial probation deal with the court. Fox News notes,
This is also not the first time this kind of video has become a problem for the center. Last year, the school’s founder, Matthew Israel, was indicted on charges that he ordered video of improperly shocked students to be erased despite an ongoing investigation.
Israel agreed to a deal that gives him pre-trial probation in exchange for his stepping down from the school.
While I get the “last resort” nature of the electric shock treatment, and I sympathize with parents and professionals doing their best to correct very serious and violent behavioral problems, it’s clear that its use in this instance was grossly mishandled. No human being should be tied to a board for seven hours, without food, water, or access to a bathroom, and shocked repeatedly. I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of thing specifically prohibited by the U.N.’s Convention Against Torture.
In fact, it turns out that the United Nations does specifically think there is torture going on at JRC, and has specifically asked the U.S. Government to intervene. According to Massachusetts State Senator Brian A. Joyce, who represents the district in which the facility is located, there have been multiple criminal investigations and charges brought against JRC. In 2009, Dr. Israel was fined by the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure for allowing 14 unlicensed clinicians at the school to use the title “psychologist”. In 2010, the Canton Police were called to a JRC group home, where a brawl had broken out between students and staff, who had donned protective helmets. News reports indicate that the brawl took thirty minutes to contain, leading critics to blast the JRC’s behavior modification methods as ‘barbaric’.
“Over the past dozen or more years there are documented instances of innocent children being subjected to the unconscionable practice of electric shock and other so-called aversive treatment which has resulted in severe personal injuries, hospitalization, or even death,” said Senator Joyce. “It is time that we stand up and protect the rights and dignity of our most vulnerable populations.”
It is time, Senator Joyce.
Update: An online petition is requesting that the video of Andre McCollins’ treatment be unsealed by the judge. You can sign the petition and/or read more information at change.org.
(Photo credits: Judge Rotenberg Center)