A House of Horrors for Autistic Children but Cash for Democratic Pols

This may rank among the most bizarre and appalling education stories I have ever heard in twenty years as a professional educator. And I have heard quite a bit.

You may have caught a blip about the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights calling in to question practices at some institution in America and read no further. I didn’t. Unfortunately, it turns out, the UN is right. There’s a taxpayer supported independent school in Massachusetts run by a radical B.F. Skinnerian cult called the Judge Rotenberg Center that makes a practice of giving frequent and intense electric shocks to severely autistic children in order to moderate their disruptive or self-isolating behaviors.

To be clear even under “enhanced interrogation” methods approved by the Bush administration, this could not be done to al Qaida captives.  We would never do it to the most hardened convicts in the Federal prison system. Yet taxpayers are footing the bill to do it to disabled students. Sometimes for hours on end.

Having worked with such students in my classroom, words fail me.

Steve Hynd, the progressive blogger at The Agonist and Newshoggers.com did some digging and discovered The Judge Rotenberg Center has deep and exclusive financial ties to a powerful coterie of Massachusetts Democrats:

Electro-Shock Torture School Donates Exclusively To Mass. Dems 

….I noted at the time that there must be some heavy political juice behind the Judge Rotenberg Center, which declared earnings of over $52 million in 2010, 99% of which came from “Fees and contracts from government agencies”. Now, The Agonist has seen information which shows a pattern of donations by directors and officials to Massachusett state Democrats – and exclusively to Democrats.

To date, the Center has spent over $16 million on legal services according to Senator Brian A. Joyce (D-MA), spending which has been very successful in keeping the school open and operating. Earlier this year the man at the head of the Center, psychologist Matthew Israel, “agreed to step down rather than face trial for his alleged role in destroying tapes showing a night in 2007 when two teenagers wrongfully received electrical shocks based on a prank phone call.” Meanwhile, Mass. Governor Deval Patrick’s administration passed new legislation that stopped the Center practising its voodoo psychology on new admissions – but didn’t stop “aversive therapy” treatments for as many as two thirds of the existing students.

The cash-rich Center certainly hires the best when it comes to protecting its ability to torture autistic children. It’s PR firm is Boston heavyweight Regan Communications Group, where it’s file is handled by Crisis Communications head and former spox for the Boston P.D. Mariellen Burns. Regan Communications was started by George K. Regan, former spokesman to Democratic Boston mayor Kevin White. Their legal firm is Bracewell & Giuliani (yes, that Giuliani) of New York. Their lobbyists are the firm of Malkin & Ross, a company headed by Donald K. Ross, the chair of the board of Directors of Greenpeace USA. In 2010, they were Malkin & Ross’ fifth largest client, paying $112,200 to, among other things, lobby the U.S. Congress to stop a bill that would have outlawed their treatment methods.

It also donates to the local Democratic Party. The Agonist has seen an email alleged to be from the Center to it’s legal and lobbyist firms, dumped on pastebin by the Anonymous collective in March of this year. The email seems to comprise information sent to those firms as part of an exercize in damage control. If it’s the real deal, then the Center’s directors have made personal donations totalling $13,305 to Massacusetts Dem heavy-hitters since 2008. The recipient list is a who’s-who of powerful local Democratic players, and there is not a single Republican on the list.

The alleged list of recipients:

Deval Patrick, currentGovernor of Massachusetts, who served as an Assistant United States Attorney General under President Bill Clinton.

Timothy Murray, Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.

Salvatore F. “Sal” DiMasi, former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives indicted and found guilty 2011 on 7 of 9 Federal charges, including conspiracy to defraud the federal government, extortion, mail fraud and wire fraud.

Patricia A. Haddad, current Speaker pro Tempore of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Robert A. DeLeo, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

James Vallee, Majority Leader of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Harriette L. Chandler, current Majority Whip of the Senate and the Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health.

Joan M. Menard, Senate Majority Whip 2003-2011, now vice president for work force development, lifelong learning, grant development and external affairs at Bristol Community College.

Steven Tolman, Dem member of Mass. State Senate to 2011, now president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Michael Morrissey, Dem member of the Massachusetts State Senate until 2011, now Chair of Massachusetts AFL.

Steven Panagiotakos, State Senator 1997 to 2011, was chair of Ways and Means Committee. Now Vice Chair, Massachusetts AFL.

Barry Finegold, Massachusetts Senate.

Garrett Bradley, Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Kathi-Anne Reinstein, Massachusetts House of Representative

Would this “school” stay open without this kind of impressive political clout behind them? How do these guys sleep at night? What is happening at The Judge Rotenberg Center seeminglyviolates Federal Law and international law. Where is the FBI?

Steve, who has always put his principles above partisanship, has a FOXnews video about the Judge Rotenberg Center’s “aversive therapy” via electro-shock [warning graphic].  The Center attempted to keep this material under seal but failed.

Massachusetts has the reputation of being the most liberal of liberal Democratic states but her pols are protecting a school whose philosophy makes Benito Mussolini look like a libertarian.

6 thoughts on “A House of Horrors for Autistic Children but Cash for Democratic Pols”

  1. Looks bad. However:

    -This type of treatment is not typical of behavioral or Skinnerian therapies, which usually attempt to reinforce good behaviors and to replace bad behaviors with good or neutral behaviors, rather than mainly to punish bad behaviors.

    -Behavioral therapies have a good record, perhaps better than any of the alternatives, in helping autistic people.

    -It’s not clear from the video if shocks are delivered in a way that is consistent with behavioral therapy.

    -The Rotenberg Center has a website with documents defending its practices. The gist of the argument seems to be that the kids who get shocked are those who exhibited extreme self-destructive behavior and for whom other therapies didn’t work, and that punishment of destructive behavior via shocks works better than the alternatives. This is a plausible argument. The Center also points out that it videotapes everything that happens in its facility.

    -The founder of the Rotenberg Center was forced out several years ago after a scandal in which a hoax caller ordered the shocking of several students.

    -The Rotenberg Center has been around for a long time and has many enemies. One of the currently prominent critics of the Rotenberg Center is a former employee.

    It’s conceivable that the Rotenberg Center is a house of horrors as depicted in the press. It’s also conceivable that the Center has been poorly and/or corruptly managed but that it does essentially good work that is difficult to explain to the public. It’s also conceivable that the accusations against the Center are false, in which case the lobbying and PR work make sense as a defensive strategy. More information is needed. (Also, how do the Rotenberg Center’s results compare to those of alternative institutions and therapies?)

  2. Patterning has a good record in autism but I don’t think aversion therapy is effective. George Harrington was an advocate of behavioral therapy in schizophrenia. That consisted of rewarding good behavior and rejecting, by not responding to it, bad or “crazy” behavior. It’s not as effective in autism. The amount of political BS that surrounds autism is alarming.

    Shock therapy had effects in schizophrenia when drugs were still in the future. It works in depression, my aunt was so treated successfully. In psychotics, it will often produce a “lucid interval” that I have seen myself. I know of no such success in autism.

  3. I yield to Dr. Kennedy’s superior knowledge regarding medical uses of electro-shock therapy having some value for certain conditions.

    That a “hoax caller”(!) could get students electro-shocked and that it was cavalierly used for disciplinary rather than medical reasons, and for extended periods of time, is enough to my mind to warrant a police investigation.

  4. Sure, check them out. Find out if the allegations in the recent lawsuit are valid and if there’s systematic abuse. Find out if there’s chronic mismanagement. (How many complaints and lawsuits have there been? How were they resolved? Are there patterns? What do the parents of former patients say?) Find out if the institution has been buying protection from pols because it’s a bad institution or to protect itself against political/media shakedowns to which it is vulnerable because of its unusual treatment methods. Also, find out how the institution’s treatment outcomes compare vs. those of other institutions and practitioners who treat similar patient populations. I agree that there is cause for concern. However, I don’t think that the answers are obvious or that the confident outrage expressed in the media coverage helps the institutionalized kids.

  5. Jonathan – I believe that the fellow forced out, Matthew Israel (a psychologist), stepped down in lieu of trial in his role in destroying tapes, at least according to the article linked to the story. New admissions can no longer receive the shock therapy. The remaining controversy is over the existing population. No doubt some social scientist has, or is, designed/designing a study to take advantage of this legal quirk because the current status is a perfect social science lab condition. You have two populations whose treatment is identical except for one variable.

    This state of affairs needs to go as soon as possible because we’re treating these human beings like lab rats. I do not expect that my wish will be followed anytime soon. These guys are going to go down fighting.

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