The Judge Rotenberg Center has a long history of defending its actions, wrapping their use of skin shocks and restraints in sunny graphics and opulent reward centers that make Liberace's home look like understated elegance.
But what now? Andre McCollins now has an undisclosed amount of money to help with his care, but what about the other residents of the JRC who still wear the backpacks that hold the apparatus to deliver the skin shocks whenever an employee decides it's warranted.
Because, after all, the JRC provides "unusually large and rapid changes in students' skills and behaviors.unusually large and rapid changes in students' skills and behaviors." Of course, they do. Make sure to check out this particular page because it's claiming that the JRC has provided "39-Years Documented Effective Treatment" and then links to testimonials. Yes, that's right: the gold standard in any scientifically-based endeavor and what all ABA providers believe in: testimonials. Oh wait, behavioral analysts believe in documenting everything and charting the behaviors to see if there's a positive change and then fading out the prompts and the rewards so that the client is doing the task independently? They don't believe in testimonials as proof of effectiveness? And they certainly don't think that a client wearing the skin shock for twenty plus years to be proof of anything but ineffectiveness as a treatment for changing behavior?
If you think shutting this place down will be easy--remember that it's been operating for over 39 years, and that as of 2007, it brought in $56 million dollars and employed 900 people. That would be a big hit in terms of employment and the benefits to the local economy derives from the JRC.
The Mother Jones article noted, and how does anyone read this and not be horrified: "The Rotenberg Center is the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers or child molesters or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons." Why is the Massachusetts legislature protecting the JRC? Why hasn't the DOJ stepped in and shut them down? One answer is the parents. Yes, the parents: "Massachusetts officials have twice tried to shut the Rotenberg Center down—once in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. Both times parents rallied to its defense, and both times it prevailed in court. (See "Why Can't Massachusetts Shut Matthew Israel Down?" page 44.)"
What matters most to these parents isn't that their children are being protected, but that they are controllable--parents are sent home with the shocking device so that they can administer the shocks when their children come home for a visit.
Why is it that things that every one would scream is abuse if it was done to a normally developing child is excused and explained away when it's done to the disabled, especially the disabled whose care is difficult, the disabled who are aggressive and self-injurious?
Mother Jones looks into the history of the center and its founder Matthew Israel: "In 1971, he founded the Behavior Research Institute in Rhode Island, a facility that would later move to Massachusetts and become known as the Judge Rotenberg Center. Israel took in children nobody else wanted—severely autistic and mentally retarded kids who did dangerous things to themselves and others. To change their behavior, he developed a large repertoire of punishments: spraying kids in the face with water, shoving ammonia under their noses, pinching the soles of their feet, smacking them with a spatula, forcing them to wear a 'white-noise helmet' that assaulted them with static."
Nice, right? California investigated Israel and his "school" after a patient died. Other patient deaths followed, the Mother Jones article details, and then shares how Israel decided to kick it up a notch, literally: "He decided to increase the pain once again. Today, there are two shock devices in use at the Rotenberg Center: the GED and the GED-4. The devices look similar and both administer a two-second shock, but the GED-4 is nearly three times more powerful—and the pain it inflicts is that much more severe." Yes, that's right, the original device he used he decided wasn't powerful enough, but the manufacturer declined to make it stronger, so Israel came up with the GED, but then decided that wasn't enough, so he made an even stronger one. How this man stayed out of jail, how staff psychologists didn't resign in ethical and moral indignation is baffling, until you remember that our country has a long history of abusing the disabled. Think Cuckoo's Nest for a vivid visual of what institutions thought of problem patients (yes, it was fiction, but it was a catalyst for change, as well, because it was based on Kesey's experiences working in a mental institution).
The author of the article at Mother Jones received a tour of the JRC, was shown videos of before and after, and then is surprised to meet two of the individual in the videos--one from 1977 and one from 1981:
"This is Caroline," one of my escorts says an hour or two 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 couple 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.
Imagine the horror, the hell, of being trapped in that place, shocked year after year.
Just because the JRC managed to settle this latest case without a jury finding doesn't mean the public should turn its attention away from the center. Nothing's really changed there. Restraints and shocks are routinely used.
This is no time for moral indignation to quiet down.