Shock therapy under the scanner

A special-needs school in the US is under fire for its treatment of students with severe behavioural problems.


    When I started researching the Judge Rotenberg Centre and its use of the Graduated Electronic Decelerator, I knew it was going to be a challenging story to cover. The use of the treatment is surrounded by controversy, claims and counter-claims. And an undeniable amount of raw emotion.

    Getting access to the JRC was key to our coverage and I was pleasantly surprised when we were granted a tour. Not surprisingly, it came with strict filming conditions given the sensitivity of the subject and protecting the identity of the young and mentally ill. But we were being given the chance to see inside first hand.

    When you walk into the JRC, the first thing you notice are the bright, happy colours. Explosions of blue, purple and green are splashed all over the foyer, on the walls, in the décor and ornaments. A huge water feature covers an entire wall.

    It all fits perfectly with our tour guide, Glenda Cook – the Centre’s cheerful and upbeat administrator. She’s been there for a very long time and knows the JRC’s statistics and facts by heart.

    We’re shown a couple of class rooms and introduced to a handful of “high-functioning” students. That means they’re articulate and can communicate their needs. They’re studying computer programming and other subjects and seem fairly relaxed and comfortable.

    There are a few students in the gym. Most of them have limited mobility and co-ordination and need help from JRC employees. I notice one with heavily strapped splints on both arms. Glenda tells me the 17-year-old boy is autistic and self-abusive. He has previously hit two staff members. Apparently, his parents want the JRC to use electric shock therapy on him but he doesn’t have the court’s approval to receive it.

    Then we start following the Yellow Brick Road – literally. The Centre has created an arcade of shops and lounges and activity areas that are almost blinding. The colours, sparkles, shiny objects and attention-grabbing displays are everywhere. It’s obviously designed to appeal to children.

    I saw a few students with a GED device (the battery pack and wires which deliver the electric current). It’s either in a backpack or in a small bag around their waist, with the wires hanging out and attached to various parts of the body. It’s hard not to stare and imagine what it must be like to carry that around almost constantly. Or what it must be like to be given a two second electric shock.


    I interviewed a lot of people for this story with diametrically opposed and opinions about the GED device. But the one thing they all have in common is their absolute conviction that they are right.

    It was hard not to be moved by Lauren Emmick, who has spent most of her life worrying about the safety and well being of her daughter - 17-year-old Lian. She was diagnosed with schizophrenic affective disorder and has been in and out of hospitals and special needs schools since she was six. Lauren says skin shock therapy is the only thing that makes Lian stop and think about her behaviour. She’s had just one shock in the last 18 months.

    Equally, I was drawn into Hilary Cook’s JRC experience. She openly admits she was a violent, disturbed teenager with a long record of assault and challenging behaviour. She was sent to the Centre and after a few months, was given her first electric shock. Hilary still remembers the extreme pain she felt. She claims that sometimes she was given skin shock therapy for mild infringements, such as swearing or defying an instruction from a staff member.

    Hilary says she lived in a constant state of fear during her three years at the JRC. Today, she has a job, her own apartment and, she says, her dignity. But she wants to speak out against the treatment because she believe it’s torture.

    There are ongoing inquiries by the United Nations and the US Department of Justice into the Centre. Letters of complaint from dozens of disability groups have been written. Legislation has been introduced in the Massachusetts State House – but not passed - trying to ban skin shock therapy.

    And yet, the Judge Rotenberg Centre is still open. Defiantly so.

    According to Glenda and the Centre’s Public Relations manager and lawyer, there’s no shortage of student success stories. And they will keep using the GED device because they are adamant it works on the very small number of people who need it.

    Depending on who you talk to, the JRC’s days are numbered or the JRC is here to stay. Either way, it has generated constant philosophical, ethical, moral and legal debates that are likely to continue for some time to come.



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