Bill-targeting facility that uses ‘aversion therapy’ in the Senate

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ALBANY — Legislation that would ban New York’s use of an out-of-state behavioral facility that uses a controversial form of treatment known as “aversion therapy” was passed this week by a key Senate committee of the state.

The bill, which is about to be voted on by the full Senate, targets Judge Rotenberg Educational Center programming outside of Boston. The center has come under scrutiny for its use of electrical stimulation devices (ESDs), which aim to deter harmful behavior by delivering electric shocks to patients. The US Food and Drug Administration banned the therapy in 2020, but the Rotenberg Center successfully appealed the ban in court.

The bill has sparked fierce debate among lawmakers and some parents who say their children have benefited from the unique programs at the residential facility in Canton, Mass. These parents also said that their children suffered from neurological disorders that trigger aggressive and self-destructive behaviors. behavior that led New York institutions to refuse to deal with them.

“As Chair of the Committee on Persons with Disabilities, I have a sacred responsibility to stand up for vulnerable and often voiceless New Yorkers and ensure they receive the care and services they need to live a life. fulfilling and comfortable,” Senator John Mannion said in a statement. statement. “Fifty years after Willowbrook, I think it’s fitting that New York joins the 40 other states that have banned ECT.”

Electroconvulsive therapy and other aversive conditioning, which involves using pain or discomfort to modify a person’s behavior, were banned in New York in 2005. Mannion was referring to Willowbrook State School, a public institution of Staten Island. Revelations of unsanitary and unsafe conditions there prompted New York to deinstitutionalize its treatment programs for people with neurological conditions.

But parents of children treated at the Massachusetts facility took to the Capitol this week to pressure lawmakers not to support the legislation. Many say their children haven’t had electric shock therapy — and never will — but could lose access to programs there because New York would have to stop funding treatment at the facility if legislation becomes law.

Last year, the Rotenberg Educational Center had 63 adults in its program who came from New York, including 58 whose treatment was funded by the OPWDD. Seven of those people had been there for more than 20 years and 32 had been there for five to 20 years. The center also provided services to 82 New York City school-aged students, whose treatment is paid for by their school districts or New York City Social Services.

The bill states that it would prohibit “aversive conditioning which includes any procedure that causes obvious signs of physical pain, including but not limited to beatings, pinches and electric shocks; prohibits the use any procedure or punishment that deprives a vulnerable person of reasonable sleep, shelter, bedding, sanitation, and any other expected aspect of human existence.”

The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Jabari Brisport, D-Brooklyn, said he named the legislation – “Andre’s Law” – for Andre McCollins, who was hospitalized in 2002 after being held up on a table and shocked 31 times over a period of about seven years. hours at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center.

“I don’t see how, if a practice is discontinued in New York, why we would continue to fund an institution that continues to practice the practice, whether it’s electroconvulsive therapy or aversive conditioning or any other practice that is no longer a New York state-sanctioned practice,” Brisport said, adding that his conversations with Cheryl Collins, the mother of Andre Collins, were a big factor in his push for the legislation.

The senator acknowledged that the bill targeted New York’s dealings with the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, which he did not visit. “To my knowledge, it’s the only school in the whole country that does this,” he added.

The Massachusetts facility regularly accepts residents who are rejected by treatment centers and educational programs in other states. Supporters of the center note that it changed its policies and implemented safeguards after the McCollins incident, and that the use of electroconvulsive therapy at the facility is extremely rare and subject to court approval. and an assessment of the client by an independent mental health expert. .

According to the center, aversive conditioning treatment is only used in the most severe cases when the person is at risk of harming themselves, according to the center. The establishment is regularly inspected by two New York agencies: the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.

A related bill remains stalled in the Legislature that would ensure people treated at out-of-state treatment centers like the Judge Rotenberg Education Center are permanently entitled to due process rights before receiving the order. to move to a facility in New York.

Last year, the state dropped its efforts to cut off funding for some New York residents receiving education and treatment programs in other states. The OPWDD had ordered a handful of families to choose between moving their disabled adult children to a remote treatment center in the Adirondacks or facing the loss of state funding for their child’s care at remote treatment centers. out-of-state treatment. The bureau reversed course days after a Times Union article was published highlighting the situation.

The resettlement issue centers on families’ due process rights under a 2014 law that gave them more say in their children’s treatment options once the child reaches the age 21 years old. State lawmakers had said they believed the resettlement effort was driven by an apparent cost-saving measure put in place by the administration of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to exploit a loophole that would prevent families from invoke these rights.


Parents of children with autism and being treated at the Canton, Massachusetts, facility said they received the resettlement letters just days or weeks before their due process rights were triggered when their children turned 21.

Joseph Atkinson, who a year ago received notification from the OPWDD that his 21-year-old son would have to move to state facilities at Sunmount in Tupper Lake or risk losing his JRC funding, told the Times Union last year that her son Joseph had never been treated with shock therapy “and he never will be”.

He and his wife Michelle said the center’s treatment programs helped their son cope with his aggressive outbursts – which included injuries to them and himself – and enabled him to perform daily tasks regularly, including making meals or doing chores, which had once been out of reach. He was also taken off many of the behavioral medications he was once prescribed and lost weight as his lifestyle became healthier, they said.

“We would love for him to be back in New York,” Joseph Atkinson said. “We’d love to have him (here) on Long Island. … The thing is, no one accepted him (in New York) because of his assault. Homes have the option of not accepting him because they would incur additional costs.”

Cohoes Assemblyman John McDonald and several other lawmakers, including Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Children and Families, and Assemblyman Thomas J. Abinanti , who chairs the Disability Commission, pushed the legislation to close the due process loophole. They argue that it would help the OPWDD make it viable for New York providers to more broadly offer the high-needs services that many families said they could only access in other states.

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