Critics, backers testify on shock therapy

Four bills would curtail use of ‘aversive’ methods

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / July 27, 2011

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It has become a wrenching but familiar sight for members of the Legislature: Brandon Sanchez - restrained by his uncle, Representative Jeffrey Sanchez - writhing as he attempts to kick, claw, and slap at his own face, the self-injurious consequence of a debilitating mental disorder.

In some ways, Brandon has become the poster child for the Judge Rotenberg Center, a Canton special needs institution that backers say is the only one in the country to apply skin shock therapy to the severely disabled, a method labeled by some lawmakers as barbaric and torture but supported by families of patients who say it is their last resort.

Brandon, one of about 90 patients at the Rotenberg Center authorized to receive shock therapy, was back at the State House yesterday as Representative Sanchez, Democrat from Jamaica Plain, testified before a committee of his colleagues that skin shock therapy has kept his nephew alive. As Sanchez spoke, Brandon moaned sporadically, occasionally breaking a hand free and slapping his own head.

“They could put him in a straitjacket and lock him up in a padded cell so he doesn’t hurt himself and he doesn’t hurt other people,’’ Sanchez said. “The other option, along with being locked up and restrained, is drugging him up with antipsychotic medicines. There’s no guarantee that it would keep him alive.’’

Sanchez’s testimony to the Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities came in opposition to four bills that would sharply curtail the use of “aversive therapy,’’ such as skin shock treatment or other remedies that involve applying a negative stimulus - spanking, pinching, or pungent odors - to prevent violent or self-injurious behavior. Currently, courts must sanction aversive therapy treatments, supporters said.

Backers of the restrictions say science and treatments have advanced enough to show that positive reinforcements, medication, and other therapies could replace aversive therapy in nearly all cases. The bills would also grandfather in those patients receiving aversive therapy, ensuring that Brandon and other patients at the Rotenberg Center could continue their course of treatment.

Critics of the center say it essentially practices a form of torture that is outlawed in many states and probably impermissible against suspected terrorists. Senate President Therese Murray has ripped the practice as inhumane, and in May, the Senate unanimously endorsed a crackdown on the use of aversive therapy. The proposal was dropped during budget negotiations with the House.

Senator Brian Joyce, Democrat from Milton, whose district houses the Rotenberg Center, has emerged as its sharpest critic, saying its practices are based on “pseudoscience’’ and calling the facility a “house of horrors’’ that reeks of “burnt flesh.’’ During yesterday’s hearing, Joyce recalled an incident several years ago in which a prank call to the center resulted in two patients getting shocked repeatedly to the point their skin was burned and both required hospitalization. Center officials called the incident a breach of protocol and said it was isolated.

Earlier this year, Matthew Israel, the center’s chief, resigned following an indictment on charges that he obstructed an investigation into the facility’s practices.

Joyce also suggested the Rotenberg Center’s motivation is money, having brought in hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade and shelling out millions on lobbyists, public relations officials, and lawyers. Some of his constituents agree.

“I’m tired of being called a citizen of the town of the Guantanamo Bay Prison for children,’’ said Alice Brown, a Canton resident who said her grandson’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is treated with medication. She called aversive therapy a “beautiful pseudonym for torture.’’

Representative Thomas Sannicandro, Democrat from Ashland, testified in support of his bill that would ban all aversive therapy in Massachusetts, arguing that alternative treatments are more effective. Several years ago, Sannicandro asked Rotenberg Center officials to shock him at the lowest level administered to patients. He described the pain as unbearable.

But supporters of the center say critics are seeking to deprive families of what could be the most appropriate form of treatment for their loved ones - often the only alternative to mind-altering antipsychotic drugs or straitjackets and padded walls.

Robert Von Heyn, the director of clinical services at the center, testified that many of Joyce’s allegations were “totally false.’’ He said no one at the facility had been hospitalized for burnt flesh and that those applying skin shocks are well-trained.

“The UN has not found what we do as torture,’’ Von Heyn said, rejecting an assertion made by critics of the facility.

JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of health and human services, testified yesterday that the move came as a result of the “rise in positive behavioral supports,’’ often obviating the need for painful aversive therapy. She cited the support of several national disability advocates for restrictions on aversive therapy, including The Arc, an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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