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Parent details toll taken by shocks at group home

Blames poor weekend staff

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / January 19, 2008

A Taunton man said his 19-year-old emotionally disturbed son seemed to be thriving at a group home, run by the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, before staff members were duped into giving him 77 punishing electric shocks one night last summer.

In his first interview since the incident, Charles Dumas said his son had difficulty controlling his aggression since he was a child and had been in and out of a dozen special schools. His son had been put on so many psychotropic drugs that "he was drooling," Dumas said.

Then in spring 2006, the Department of Social Services, which had oversight of his son's care, placed him at the Canton-based Rotenberg school, a residential special needs facility where over half of the more than 200 students receive skin shocks as part of a behavior-modification program.

Dumas, in a telephone interview Wednesday night, said he didn't like the idea of shock treatments, but soon noticed that his son's behavior was improving. His son wore a battery-operated device, with electrodes attached to various parts of his body, that administers 2-second skin shocks. In fact, in the first year and a half of his stay at the Rotenberg school, the teenager received a total of 10 shocks and none after October 2006.

But, according to graphic details from a state investigative report made available to the Globe this week, his son encountered a night of horror on a weekend last August, after experiencing 10 months without any shocks.

The incident, triggered by a caller who pretended to be a central office supervisor giving punishment orders, is now the subject of a criminal investigation. The case was also the focus of a State House hearing this week as lawmakers considered a bill that would severely restrict the school's shock-treatment programs.

The report, issued by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission, outlined a motive for the hoax: The alleged caller, Stephen Ferrer-Torres, a runaway from the group home who has not since been located by police, asserted to other students that he had been bullied by Dumas's son and another resident, who received 29 wrongful shocks based on the caller's instructions, according to the report. The Globe is not identifying the two residents who were shocked because they were victims of abuse.

In the report, the commission gave a harsh assessment of the group home's staff. It found that three of six staff members assigned to the Stoughton group home had been employed for less than three months. Two had repeatedly failed basic training tests, and two had been on probation for various infractions.

After the hoax call came in at about 2 a.m. Aug. 26, according to the report, Dumas's son told staff numerous times that they were violating his shock treatment protocol and suggested that the caller may be a prankster. At one point, he said, "Get on the phone and find out what is going on. . . ." The 77 shocks he received were, in part, based on his unwillingness to passively receive the shocks.

The account in the report was based on videotapes of the incident from Rotenberg's surveillance cameras, which were shown to investigators before school officials destroyed the tapes in early October.

Investigators found that a half-hour standoff occurred in the hallway, with Dumas's son at one end and the rest of the staff at the other end, including Bartholomew George, a rookie employee who was in phone contact with the caller and initiated the shocks. Soon after that, Dumas's son took out the batteries of his shock device, holding them out like weapons, the report said.

But after that, the staff tied Dumas's son to a board, restraining all four limbs. The teenager, resigned to his fate, said, "Let them know I'm being compliant."

During the next hour, he received dozens of rapid-fire shocks to his abdomen and limbs, which in fact violated his treatment plan. At one point, he complained, "Mister, I can't breathe."

On tape, the staff recounted the reasons for different shocks, including swearing, verbal threats, and noncompliance. Of the two power levels of shock treatments used by the school, Dumas's son received the most powerful each time, school officials have said.

Shift supervisor Michael Thompson, on the job for two months, left the room at one point, saying he wanted to "either cry or throw up," the report said.

When it was over around 5 a.m., Dumas's son was not returned to his own bed, but placed, ironically, in the bed emptied by the runaway who allegedly placed the hoax call.

Dumas said in the interview that hours later he received a call from his son's therapist, telling him, "something terrible happened." Dumas, a single father, said he phoned his son that day, and his son told him he was medically fine, but was extremely scared and upset.

"He did get angry," said Dumas, who said he visited his son the following weekend.

A nurse's report indicated that the teenager, described by the father as about 6-foot-4 and more than 200 pounds, had "reddened areas on his torso, but that the skin was not broken."

Dumas said Rotenberg officials have been very responsive, transferring his son to a different group home and taking him off all shock devices. The state is also in the process of transferring his son to a different school.

After the incident, Dumas's son was also given many rewards and privileges at the school to alleviate his distress. The teenager was also given a cellphone for emergency use by the school, which has initiated a number of changes to address the problems raised by the incident.

Dumas said his son sees the incident as a mistake. The second victim of the incident has since left for another school.

The father said he has tried to keep perspective on the incident, blaming poor weekend staffing for what transpired that night. He said the home had many immigrants who had difficulty giving even simple directions in English.

"On the weekends, they have a lot of people who don't speak good English and are fearful of losing their jobs," Dumas said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

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