Dispute Over Shock Therapies Has Education Officials Reconsidering
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
March 24, 2006
ALBANY, NEW YORK--Some parents and experts say the device is a godsend. Others consider it primitive and cruel, and say that it reminds them of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
The device is called a "Graduated Electronic Decelerator", or GED, and is about the same size and shape as a backpack, and is worn much like one. About half of the residents at the Judge Rotenberg Education Center in Canton, Massachusetts -- most with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, or brain injuries -- wear them 24 hours a day for what is called "aversive therapy".
The GEDs -- which were developed at JRC and have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- have electrodes that are placed on specific spots on the person's skin. When a person wearing a GED "misbehaves", JRC staff members push a button on a remote control device to deliver an electric jolt, which a JRC spokesperson described as feeling much like a hard pinch of skin or a bee sting, for up to two seconds.
"It's painful," resident Katie Sparchichino told Newsday.
Rotenberg provides reports on its website showing that the devices have been effective in getting some people to reduce "aggression and self-injury".
"It's not something someone would enjoy having done to them. That's why a lot of kids change behaviors," explained Sparchichino. "I didn't want to get shocked and I changed my behavior."
Without the GED, Sparchichino regressed, such as when she went home and her mother found she could not shock her daughter.
While most experts agree that punishments are usually effective in reducing a specific behavior, one criticism made by opponents of such pain compliance or aversive treatments has been that the person subjected to them can start to depend on them: Once the threat of discomfort is gone, the undesired behavior can return, even at higher levels than before the treatment started.
Last week, Evelyn Nicholson of Freeport, New York, announced that she is suing her local school district for sending her 17-year-old adopted son, Antwone, to the Rotenberg Center, formerly known as the "Behavior Research Institute". She said that the institution's aversive therapy caused her son emotional trauma and fear, amounting to corporal punishment, which is banned in New York and at least 26 other states.
JRC started using the shock treatment on Antwone, who has learning disabilities, in August of 2004, because he cursed, threw things and attacked staff. Over the next 18 months, the GED was used on Antwone 79 times, or about once a week.
"He said, 'Mommy, you don't know how it feels. It's very painful,'" Mrs. Nicholson recalled when describing her son's phone calls.
At her request, the facility stopped using the shock treatments on Antwone in February. His psychologist said that without the GED the teen's "inappropriate behavior" returned almost immediately. Last Thursday, it took eight people to restrain Antwone after he tried to attack a staff member, the psychologist said.
Last July, the New York lawmakers passed "Billy's Law", a measure that gives state officials increased oversight of the treatment that more than 1,400 New York children and adults receive at out-of-state facilities. Rotenberg currently houses about 150 youths from New York for whom their home state could not provide adequate services.
Because of concerns over mistreatment at out-of-state facilities, New York education officials and state lawmakers are considering ending the practice altogether, and bringing those children and adults back to their home state.
"Mom cites trauma and fear" (Newsday)
"Shock therapy disputed" (Newsday)
"School defends electric shock of disabled youths" (Newsday)
"Use of Skin-Shock as an Aversive in Behavioral Treatment" (Judge Rotenberg Educational Center)
"State sending more disabled students away" (Newsday)