18 May 2012

What they do to us is intolerable!

TASH New England's Better Supports, Better Lifestyles in Today’s Challenging World Conference on Friday 11 May 2012 at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. From left to right: Emily Titon, Gregory Miller, and me.

The Friday morning session was called "What They Do to Us is Intolerable! A Discussion About Restraints, Seclusion Time Outs, and Aversives," and it was organized by Emily Titon, an amazing Autistic woman who in addition to serving on the boards of TASH national and TASH New England and the Rhode Island Advocates in Action, has also co-founded the Rhode Island chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

(I was informed that I was co-presenting that this session after Emily had already told the conference organizer.)

I hadn't expected to be discussing the history of the Judge Rotenberg Center and its use of electric shock, food deprivation, prolonged restraint, and fear as forms of "treatment" while standing less than six feet away from the former JRC employee who has written a 250,000+ signature strong petition demanding an end to the electric shock "treatment." Gregory Miller is a man with the courage to speak against egregious violations of human rights even in the face of a lawsuit brought against him by the JRC's powerful army of lawyers and backed by the JRC's money.

At $250,000 each year per student, the JRC's revenue allows the institution to fund lobbyists, lawyers, parents, and staff to flood public legislative and regulatory hearings with brainwashed testimony built on a castle of lies and half-truths. That same fat pocketbook also gives the JRC the musclepower to effectively silence any would-be whistleblowers and prevent the truth about their methods from reaching the public.

But the walls protecting the JRC are slowly crumbling. While Massachusetts has repeatedly failed to pass legislation banning the use of electric shocks, we've begun to take small steps forward -- toward the ultimate and permanent closure of the institution.

New York, the state that provides the vast majority of the JRC's residents, passed legislation banning the use of electric shock on any residents from New York, though people from New York still comprise the majority of the JRC's students.

Matthew Israel, the JRC's founder, was forced to resign last year in a plea bargain after he faced perjury charges and charges of intentionally destroying evidence in a 2007 incident that resulted in the repeated shocking of two students who hadn't even engaged in dangerous or self-injurious behavior.

The Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services enacted into law regulations that ban the use of aversives, including electric shock, on any students admitted after September 2011, though the regulations do allow for the use of electric shock where it was included in court-approved behavior plans created before September 2011.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture decried the JRC's practices as torture after receiving a report from Disability Rights International.

The U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division opened an investigation into the JRC in December 2010, though the investigation has produced little tangible.

And the Massachusetts Senate has repeatedly passed a ban on aversives, although this ban has never passed through the Massachusetts House.

Let's also not forget that first California, and then Rhode Island, prohibited the use of aversive interventions favored by Matthew Israel, in whose care at least six students have died as a direct or indirect result of the aversive intervention program, resulting in the JRC's final relocation to Massachusetts where the facility still stands today.

Last month, in a civil trial against the Judge Rotenberg Center, a judge unsealed graphic video footage of then-eighteen Andre McCollins receiving thirty-one electric shocks after refusing to remove his jacket. Footage of that video has received hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

Shortly afterward, Greg Miller, the former JRC employee who joined Emily and I at the TASH New England conference a week ago, wrote a petition demanding the end of electric shock aversives, which has received over 250,000 signatures to date. The JRC has decided to sue him in an attempt to silence him. They've accused him of defamation and making false statements, as well as being a disgruntled employee who was fired, when in fact, Greg resigned and has documentation of his resignation. Greg has made several media appearances in the last two weeks in the hopes of galvanizing the public further to action against the JRC.

Today, Massachusetts State Senator Brian Joyce, who actually represents the district where the JRC is located, filed two anti-aversives amendments to the budget that will be debated starting this coming Wednesday. The first of the amendments would solidify the DDS regulations promulgated last year by codifying them and giving further protection against potential suit. The second amendment is a complete ban on aversives, which the Senate has previously passed on multiple occasions. Massachusetts residents have until Wednesday or so to urge their State Senators to co-sponsor or support the anti-aversives amendments before they go to the floor for debate.

Also in this past week or so is the announcement of legislation jointly filed by New York Senator Martin Golden and Assemblywoman Joan Millman (S6294A-2011 and A9084A-2011) that would cut all state or public funding to any school, institution, or program that uses any form of aversives. Electric shock is specifically named because the legislation is in fact targeted at the JRC. As the majority of the JRC's residents are from New York, passing those bills could permanently damage the JRC's primary source of revenue, and possibly lead to the institution's closure because of inability to support itself financially.

In the wake of Andre's trial against the JRC and Greg's petition, several disability rights activists and community stakeholders have formed the group Occupy JRC, and are planning a 2 June 2012 rally in Canton near the JRC itself, at which Greg Miller will be one of the speakers along with disability rights advocates Senator Brian Joyce, Kat Whitehead (Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth), Dan Fisher (National Empowerment Center), Ari Ne'eman (Autistic Self Advocacy Network), Laurie Ahern (Disability Rights International), Daniel Hazen (Voices of the Heart), and Joseph Sitinbull (Helping Others to Promote Equality).

Yet while cautiously hopeful that the JRC is in fact under threat of imminent closure due to the increased publicity around its use of torture, and mounting campaigns from both government and grassroots opposition to its practices, it is imperative to remember that thousands of people with disabilities continue to languish in institutional facilities and nursing homes across the nation where abuse and neglect come in many forms.

Cuts to funding for public service providers have resulted in unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles to full integration and meaningful community inclusion, meaningless day-habilitation programs, denial of necessary medical attention, and deplorable conditions inside institutions and group homes. Schools routinely subject students with disabilities to all forms of restraint and seclusion as mechanisms for "dealing with" students whose behaviors and learning styles diverge too much from the norm to be acceptable.

Our society has built a culture of complete lack of empathy for those who diverge from norms or typicalities, with the bricks of dehumanization and othering laying the foundation for a world in which these types of abuse are perpetuated.


  1. Lydia, I appreciate this article. I recall reading about this issue in the Boston Globe in the past. What I don't understand is why there have also been letters published supporting the practices at the Judge Rotenberg Center, that are written by parents. I find this to be confusing.

  2. It is a bit confusing, isn't it? What kind of parent would knowingly send their son or daughter to a school that uses shocks, one has to wonder?

    A lot of the parents who send their kids there simply don't realize that they are sending their children to be tortured - the school doesn't tell the parents, even when said parents sign off on the shocks, that their son or daughter will be shocked for minor things - no, the parents and the court are led to believe that the JRC only shocks students for behavior threatening to life, limb, or property. But as we saw in the video of Andre being shocked, he was shocked 31 times for refusing to remove his jacket - hardly behavior threatening to life, limb, or property. But ask Greg Miller what the kids at the JRC are actually shocked for - for example simply raising one's hand and leaning out of their seat to as to go to the bathroom can be labeled "aggression," as can tearing a strip of paper. And if they reacted to another student being shocked, they were told "No stopping work!" and would do so, lest they be next to be shocked. Horrible, horrible place.

    Most parents, like Cheryl McCollins, are horrified and try to pull their children upon learning of this.

    But a lot of parents don't learn, and believe the JRC that their son or daughter is doing well there, and disbelieve their child about any abuse they might report. These parents have often seen their kids expelled from several school for outbursts (sometimes very violent ones), meltdowns, self-injurious behavior, and other issues. They are at the end of their rope, desperate to believe in this, the "school of last resort," the only school that would accept their child. They are grateful, but they also do not understand or know what goes on - but because they do not know, they are inclined to believe things are good until shown otherwise. Out of their ignorance they may say JRC has helped their son or daughter.

    Then there are parents who know very well what is going on and, as in the 2007 article "School of Shock" article by Jennifer Gonnerman, they say with a smile that if their son or daughter is home on a visit, all they have to do is hold up the GED device and their child complies - they would surely say the school is good but I can't see them as anything other than sadistic. Who else takes pride and pleasure in telling others they keep control by triggering someone's PTSD?

    Who thinks instilling PTSD and fear in someone is a good idea?

    Which brings me to the last, and IMHO, worst group: those parents who Greg gave us some examples of - parents who told JRC to shock their children/teens for "exhibiting behaviors." There was one couple with an Autistic son who ordered he be shocked. The parents wanted to extinguish many behaviors, many of which were his coping skills and stims so he does not get overloaded.

    That scans to me as nothing but cruel. And yet the parents were pleased - the JRC, after all, did their bidding and gave their son or daughter PTSD in the name of therapy. The parents wanted it - of course they'll say it worked.

    But consider: some students have been there for a decade or two decades - if the treatment worked and was so great, they should have gotten better and gone back to their local school, right?

    Instead many students have severe PTSD and are being held there indefinitely, it seems. I do not consider that a good or positive outcome.

  3. Lydia (?) and Emily: Thank you for your very enlightening writing here! Let's stop the funding, illegalize subversives, and hopefully shut this place down!

  4. Wow! I haven't heard much about this, although I know about TASH and support it strongly.

    What does Greg Miller do now? How does he currently help our population distinct from his recent political activity?

  5. Excellent summary. Thanks Lydia.


Hi! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I manually approve comments, so sometimes it takes a few weeks, months, or even years to find and approve comments. This delay is normal. As this is a personal blog, I also reserve the right not to publish comments.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.