Rotenberg founder set to face charges

Expected to quit over ’07 shock case

Matthew Israel’s tactics have been condemned as barbaric and savage by many top medical and mental health professionals. Matthew Israel’s tactics have been condemned as barbaric and savage by many top medical and mental health professionals. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff/ File 2008)
By Patricia Wen and Brian McGrory
Globe Staff / May 25, 2011

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The founder of the controversial Judge Rotenberg Educational Center is scheduled to face criminal charges in Dedham today arising from a night in 2007 when two special needs teenagers at the center were wrongfully administered dozens of electrical shocks, according to the father of one of the victims and another person with knowledge about the case.

In a deal reached with the state attorney general’s office, Matthew Israel, 77, is expected to be spared prison time in return for stepping down from the Canton-based center that he founded 40 years ago and accepting a five-year probationary term, said Charles Dumas, the father of one of the two victims in the 2007 case who said he spoke yesterday with prosecutors. As part of the agreement, the school’s day-to-day activities will also be overseen by a court-approved monitor.

A court official who works at the Norfolk County Superior Court said that today’s schedule of cases lists a defendant named Matthew Israel facing two charges, misleading a grand jury and accessory after the fact to a crime.

The charges against Israel are believed to be related to the destruction of some of the center’s digital surveillance tapes that would have showed what occurred the night of Aug. 26, 2007, in one of the center’s residential group homes in Stoughton. That night, staffers received a prank phone call from someone posing as a supervisor, saying two teenagers, including Dumas’s son, should be administered electrical shocks as punishment for bad behavior earlier that day.

The attorney general’s office declined comment on the case yesterday, as did Ernest Corrigan, a longtime spokesman for Israel and the center. On May 2, Corrigan had issued a press release announcing Israel’s retirement, effective June 1. In the release, which made no mention of a pending criminal case, Israel is quoted as saying, “I am now almost 78 years old, and it is time for me to move over and let others take the reins.’’

The case marks a dramatic turn in the career of the Harvard-trained psychologist, though it does not appear to end the center’s unorthodox practices that have generated national controversy: the use of skin-shock treatments to discipline behaviorally troubled children.

His tactics have been condemned as barbaric and savage by many top medical and mental health professionals. But despite some injuries and even deaths at the facility, the center has continued to get state approval to operate as a special-needs school serving some 200 students with serious emotional and behavioral problems, including autism and intellectual disabilities.

Its most effective backers have been the parents of some of these troubled students who say Israel’s center accepted their child when no other school would. Israel has said his methods work and have virtually eliminated the use of psychotropic drugs at his center.

In the press release announcing Israel’s departure earlier this month, one of the center’s board members, Margaret Vaughan, a retired professor of psychology at Salem State University, described Israel as a “heroic figure’’ to thousands of families. She said he helped the families who saw the center as “their last thread of hope’’ for their children.

The center has launched a national search for a successor to Israel. The center is being run on an interim basis by assistant executive director Glenda Crookes.

The case against Israel allegedly centers on the tapes that captured the wrongful shocks delivered in 2007, said people familiar with the case.

The center has a policy of monitoring students’ behavior with help from remote surveillance cameras. Those monitoring the tapes had the option of ordering skin-shock treatments via telephone if they witnessed inappropriate actions, even hours after they occurred.

Based on the phone call, staffers woke up Dumas’s son and he was given 77 skin-shock treatments over three hours while being restrained on a flat surface. Another teenager was given about two dozen shocks.

The center acknowledged mistakes made by staff that night, and vowed to change many of its policies, particularly the issuance of shock treatment orders via telephone. Charles Dumas said his son remained at the Rotenberg center for another year, but was moved to a different group home and taken off the skin-shock treatments. He said his son, now 22, is now living on his own and working two jobs.

Dumas said he was told by the attorney general’s office to keep secret the news of Israel’s criminal charges, but he wanted to speak out when approached yesterday by the Globe about the case. “I don’t want to do anything to protect Matthew Israel,’’ he said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at Brian McGrory can be reached at