Editor’s Note: Audio includes audio of a teenager undergoing electroshock treatment.
In the early 2000s, Cheryl McCollins enrolled her son Andre, who has autism and other developmental disabilities, at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts.
She never thought that in 2002 her child would be restrained by several staff, tied to a stretcher and shocked 31 times. His punishment for misconduct – the staff member’s justification for administering the shocks – left him catatonic.
Video of the incident, which went viral in 2012, documents a panicked André screaming in pain and begging workers to stop shocking him.
The footage remains traumatic for McCollins to hear, but she wants people to listen to her in order to get her message out against electroconvulsive therapy and the Judge Rotenberg Center.
As of last month, the Judge Rotenberg Center will continue to be the only school, hospital or residential facility in the United States authorized to use electric shock therapy for its residential students with cognitive and emotional disabilities.
The Food and Drug Administration banned the procedure in 2020 – but a federal appeals court judge overturned it in July, saying it exceeded the authority of the FDA.
The ruling is the latest chapter in a decades-long battle between disability activists, parents and alumni who call the treatment traumatic and abusive, and a group of parents and administrators who say the Shocks are a lifesaving last resort to “correct aggressive behavior or self-injurious behavior in adults and children.”
MassLive reporter Heather Morrison has covered the story for years. She says students wear backpacks fitted with electrical stimulation devices 24 hours a day. Residential school workers use shocks with a remote control device when students exhibit a range of unwanted behaviors.
School administrators and some parents say the devices save lives – used to deter dangerous or life-threatening behavior.
“Recently I was told by a lawyer that it is used to help a person stop banging their head to the point of breaking off their retina,” Morrison says.
Others, however, complained to Morrison that shocks can be administered for minor transgressions. She describes a conversation she had with a former CCR resident who still suffers from PTSD as an adult.
“She was shocked to just get up because she had to use the bathroom and she didn’t have permission to do so,” Morrison said.
In another well-documented incident in 2007, a former student called the center, posing as a supervisor and ordering shock treatment for two teenagers. One student received 77 shocks; the other had 29. At that time, without acknowledging his fault, the founder of the center, Matthew Israel, resigned from the management of the boarding school.
But many parents remain devoted to the center. They say the school is a safe place for children for whom there is no alternative – many of whom have been taken away from other institutions.
Disability advocates told Morrison it’s true that there are few options – but that’s because of a lack of effort on the part of public health and education authorities in the ‘State and beyond.
“The advocates come in and say Massachusetts has a responsibility to step in and help these families find those other options,” she said.
As of 2014, an online petition against the use of electric shocks as therapy quickly spread and garnered over 300,000 signatures. And the most recent push for the FDA to ban the treatments began in 2016. It was successful in March 2020 when the FDA granted a ban, writing that the devices cause “a number of significant psychological and physical risks,” including including “worsening of underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, pain, burns and tissue damage.”
The ban was short-lived, however. Last month, a federal appeals court overturned the ruling in July, saying the ban exceeded the authority of the FDA.
The FDA has not responded to Morrison’s inquiries as to whether there will be an appeal. Lawyers tell her they hope the federal agency will push for her recovery. Meanwhile, many are demanding that Massachusetts make repairs to shock therapy survivors and stop all other aversive therapy, she says.
André’s mother, McCollins, is one of the many people who would love to see the shock treatment end and the survivors to receive reparations. She wants the school to be closed and criminal charges laid.
“Let’s say he was behaving erratically and I tied him up and shocked him until he fell into a coma,” she says. “What would happen to me?” I would be all over the news.
She once believed school and behavior modification treatments would be a lifeline for her son: the center was on the Board of Education’s approved list, she says, and when they first entered Once in the Judge Rotenberg center, the staff seemed “human”.
Additionally, McCollins says she thought she was speaking with psychiatrists and psychologists, but in hearings following her trial, she found out that most were clinicians.
“They tell you about this device, but they don’t tell you how they are going to use it on your child,” she says. “You don’t know what’s going on until your child is in the program. “
McCollins also criticizes how CCR students are too quickly withdrawn from medications that are often essential to their well-being.
“My son only took one medicine, but he needed this medicine,” she says. “This drug was not replaced by therapy – it was replaced by shock.”
On that fateful day in 2002, McCollins received a call from the school saying André “had a bad day”. The next day, when she called him, he was unintelligible. It was then that she left New York for Massachusetts, where she describes her son as catatonic. She took him to Boston Children’s Hospital where he was admitted.
McCollins then returned to the JRC and demanded to see the video of what had happened to his son. She saw her son on tape refuse to take his coat off. After a few shocks, he tensed up – behavior that staff deemed unacceptable under center policy. He received almost 30 more shocks as he cried out in pain and asked them to stop.
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What struck many who saw the viral video – which McCollins fought to get published for nine years – is that André seemed reasonable at the time. McCollins says his son was trying to “bring some sanity” to these workers. After he was released from the hospital, she did not take him back to school.
McCollins says she later learned that the school had a list of behaviors they would shock children for – a list that was never made public to parents or the students themselves.
“So how are they supposed to know why you are shocking them?” ” she asks.
To parents who think the Judge Rotenberg Center is the only option, McCollins has a firm response: “There are places that have proven that it is not necessary to torture your child, to shock your child, in order for it to happen. he behaves well.
Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.