Wednesday, August 22, 2012

US School's Shock Treatments of Autistic Children

The shocks are generated by a device known as a GED which children are made to carry 24 hours a day in backpacks or around their waist. Photograph: Rick Friedman
The UN's special rapporteur on torture has made a formal approach to the US government over a special-needs school near Boston that inflicts electric shocks on autistic children as a form of behavioural control.
Juan Mendez has told the Guardian that he has opened discussions with the US mission to the UN in Geneva as a first step towards investigating the school.
The rapporteur plans to contact the US state department and has the option of reporting the matter to the UN human rights council.
Mendez said he was "very concerned" about the use of electric shocks, which are inflicted on autistic children through pads applied to their skin.
"The use of electricity on anyone's body raises the question of whether this is therapeutic or whether it inflicts pain and suffering tantamount to torture in violation of international law," he added.
The Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, is believed to be the only institution in the world in which disabled and disturbed children are subjected to electric shocks to in a system known called "aversive therapy".
The shocks are generated by a device known as a GED which children are made to carry 24 hours a day in backpacks or around their waist.
About half of the school's students carry the generators that are triggered by care assistants using remote-controlled zappers, which then send a electric charge to skin pads on the children's arms and legs.
The Guardian is one of very few media organisations that have witnessed the school in operation.
In recent weeks opposition to the controversial electro-shock treatment has reached fever pitch. A rally demanding the end of the practice was due to be held outside the Massachusetts state house at noon Saturday followed by a march at the JRC itself at 3.30pm.
The spotlight that the UN rapporteur is putting on the school is given added poignancy by the fact that Mendez was himself subjected to torture by electric shock at the hands of the Buenos Aires police in 1975.
He was abused with electric prods.
"I feel very strongly that electricity applied to a person's body creates a very extreme form of pain. There a lot of lingering consequences including mental illness that can be devastating," Mendez said.
This is the second time the UN has intervened over the school. Mendez's predecessor as torture rapporteur, Manfred Nowak, also called for a federal US investigation.
Outrage over the school was taken to a new level in April when for the first time the public was able to see video footage of a child being subjected to the shocks.
The video, played in a Boston courtroom, showed then 18-year-old Andre McCollins being given 31 shocks over a seven-hour period in 2002.
In the video Andre can be heard screaming and shouting "Help me. Help me." He is restrained with belts, face down on a board as the electricity is discharged into his body.
Andre's mother, Cheryl McCollins, who was suing the school for mistreating her son, told the court that when she visited him soon after he was given the zaps "I couldn't turn Andre's head to the left or to the right. He was just staring straight. He didn't blink."
The McCollins family reached a settlement with the JRC, which claimed it was merely following a judge-approved treatment plan for Andre.
But in the wake of the video, calls for the electric shocks to be banned have grown.
"We are closer now to closing down the JRC than we have ever been," said Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network that is run by and for autistic adults. "This issue is deeply personal – this could be happening to us."
Laurie Ahern of the campaign Disability Rights International that has opposed the treatment for many years said aversive therapy amounted to "a horrific form of torture".
"What happened to Andre in that video is worse than anything I have ever seen done to a prisoner of war or a political victim around the world," she said.

$16m on lawyers' fees

As public anger builds, there are mounting political moves to restrict the school's activities. A bill that would ban aversive therapy has already passed the Massachusetts state senate and is now being considered by the house.
A leading proponent of the bill, Massachusetts senator Brian Joyce, said in a live chat on the Canton Patch website that "for too many years, we have failed our moral obligation to defend these defenseless children".
He said that the school had managed for decades to continue its controversial practice through a combination of secrecy and legal threats, spending $16m on lawyers' fees between 2000 and 2010.
Joyce was due to be speaking at Saturday's statehouse rally, as was Gregory Miller, a former assistant at the JRC who himself administered electric shocks but grew to be sickened by the procedure.
Miller organised a petition on calling for an end to the shocks that has attracted more than 240,000 signatures.
"When I started at the school I was told that students' behaviour was so severe they had to be shocked in order to save their lives. But I had to shock students for very minor things, like tearing up a paper cup or standing up to give a hug."
He added that some students, who weren't able to speak out about what was happening to them, were getting 20 or 30 shocks a day.
In a statement, the JRC said that it uses shock treatments for the most difficult behaviourally involved students in the country. The shocks were only administered when other therapies were exhausted and with the approval of parents and the courts.
"The staff at JRC is committed to serving these students, when no other facility can or will, and finding the best ways to manage their behaviours to a level where they are no longer causing severe injury and pain to themselves, can learn, and spend time with their family and friends."
The JRC was founded 40 years ago The use of electric shocks on autistic kids was devised by Matthew Israel, an ardent follower of "behaviouralism" that believes humans can be remoulded through punishments and rewards.
Israel was forced to step down last year after he was found to have ordered the destruction of video evidence relating to a case in which a boy aged 18 was shocked 77 times.
The zaps, which occurred over a three-hour period, were applied by assistants acting upon instructions received, it was later discovered, from a hoax phone call.
Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, an autism expert at Lesley University in Massachusetts, said that one reason the school had survived so long was that Israel claimed – inaccurately – that there were no alternatives to aversive therapy for cases of severe autism.
"The field moved away from this position years ago towards positive behavioural support," she said.

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