Judge Rotenberg Educational Center
The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC, originally founded as the Behavior Research Institute) located in Canton, Massachusetts is a residential facility that provides aversive behavior modification and educational services to children and adults with severe developmental disabilities and emotional or behavior disorders, through day, residential, and respite programs. JRC states that the center applies the science and technologies of behavioral psychology to the education and treatment of severe behavior disorders, using several basic principles, including near-zero rejection and expulsion policy regardless of severity of behavior or disability, active treatment rather than warehousing and use of medications and varied rewards programs.
The center was founded as the Behavior Research Institute in 1971 by Dr. Matthew L. Israel, a psychologist who trained with B. F. Skinner. In 1994 the center changed its name to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center "to honor the memory of the judge [who] helped to preserve [the] program from extinction at the hands of state licensing officials in the 1980’s." The JRC moved from its original location near Providence RI to its current facilities in Canton MA in 1996. The move allowed an expansion of the numbers of individuals served, as well as a new location in one of the center’s major service areas (Massachusetts).
The Judge Rotenberg Center treatment goals include a near-zero rejection/expulsion policy regardless of severity of behaviors and/or disability; active treatment with a behavioral approach directed exclusively towards normalization; frequent use of behavioral rewards and occasional use of punishments; minimal or zero use of psychotropic medications; video monitoring of staff; and the option to use aversives, including electric shocks on the skin using a device called a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED).
Each student and client has an individualized behavior contract which includes specific instructions on the use of rewards and aversives in reinforcing normalized behaviors. The behavior modification model is adhered to on a 24/7 basis by all direct-care staff and other staff in contact with the residents. Daily notes on the resident’s progress and behaviors are maintained by trained staff and are available at all times to parents and guardians, as well as to referring agencies.
Use of rewards and aversives
The rewards system, used on a daily basis with all residents, offers them the opportunity to earn money through academic achievement, as well as earning participation in desired activities such as on-site arcades, movies, an Internet café, holiday activities, and time spent on both indoor and outdoor basketball courts and playgrounds. Residents also earn special outings with favorite staff members, and off-site field trips to local attractions such as the New England Aquarium and the Franklin Park Zoo, parks and playgrounds, museums, and other trips.
Rewards also include special take-out meals or snacks such as smoothies and lattes. The center also maintains a “contract store” where items of interest to the population, such as clothing, jewelry, and electronic devices such as MP3 players, are available for purchase with money earned as rewards for positive behavior and academic achievement.
Residents can also earn the chance to work onsite, earning money for their efforts while learning how to succeed in the outside world. They also occasionally volunteer locally or work for pay at offsite businesses.
Aversives used to modify negative and unwanted behaviors include: loss of privileges (LOP) (residents lose opportunities to participate in the various activities, field trips, or other rewards as outlined above); pinpointing the behavior (pointing it out to the resident and noting it in his/her daily record; the accumulation of these notes results in loss of privileges); and in the most extreme cases such as self-injury or injury to others, the use of the GED skin shock. Residents who may be subjected to the GED include approximately 1/3 of JRC’s over 240 students and clients.
The GED was invented to administer the shocks by remote control through electrodes worn against the skin. Most often, the shocks are initiated by trained staff to address high-risk, low-frequency behaviors. The center states that the GEDs are only employed after positive behavioral interventions have not been proven to alleviate violent, self-injurious behaviors.
Controversy and investigations
The center is one of only a few facilities in the United States making use of aversives, and the only one using the GED, in its treatment and behavioral interventions. However, existing protections in place include:
- A probate court judge must pre-approve an individualized treatment plan authorizing the use of the skin shock and reviews the plan and its results yearly, on a case-by-case basis
- Parents must give their prior informed consent
- The use of skin shock must be included in the student's Individual Service, Education, or Habilitation Plan, and
- A physician, clinician, human rights committee, and peer review committee must also give prior approval
At various points in its history, investigations and lawsuits have been brought against the center’s operations. In 2002 the mother of a former student launched a civil lawsuit against the center after an incident in which the student was restrained for seven hours and shocked many times. A trial finally came about in this lawsuit in April, 2012, with both sides claiming satisfaction with the outcome. The incident prompted protests against the school’s use of aversives and an investigation by the current Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations, Juan E. Méndez, who stated that though the passage of electricity through the body was associated with pain and suffering, the outcome depended on how long and how much of a shock was used, as well as the rationale for its use.
Concerns about the treatment regimen prompted 2005 and 2006 investigations by the New York State Education Department. The resulting report from the final 2006 visit was highly critical of both processes and oversight at the facility.
In December 2007, the center was found by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care to have been abusive towards residents and failing to protect their health, after two residents were shocked using a GED on the behest of a former student posing as a staff member in an August 2007 telephone call. Video surveillance revealed that one resident was restrained on a 4-point board, a type of mechanical restraint that was court-approved in his treatment plan, but was not authorized by trained staff for use in that moment. In response, the center instituted several reforms including re-training staff; not allowing monitoring staff to call for the use of the GED; appointing new supervisors; regularly reviewing video recordings of staff and instituting random spot checks of staff behavior; new call screening procedures; and the suspension or cancellation of certain punishments for certain residential units, including the use of the GED.
A full investigation of the incident was conducted by Massachusetts authorities and agencies, during which all investigating parties viewed the video tapes multiple times. The originals of the surveillance tapes were then destroyed by Dr. Israel under his mistaken belief that there was no further need for them, although the state assistant attorney general claimed that Israel had been ordered to keep them.
In May 2011, Matthew Israel was charged with misleading a grand jury over the school's destruction of those tapes, as well as being an accessory after the fact. Israel resigned his position at the JRC in a deferred prosecution plea deal with the Massachusetts State Attorney General's office. Then-Assistant Executive Director Glenda Crookes became the Executive Director of the Judge Rotenberg Center after Dr. Israel’s resignation.
In 2010, the American human rights organization Mental Disability Rights International (now Disability Rights International, DRI), filed an appeal with the office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, stating they believed the residents were being subjected to human rights abuses due to the center’s use of aversives. The then-Special Rapporteur, Manfred Nowak, sent what he described as "an urgent appeal to the U.S. government asking them to investigate." In 2012, a follow-up investigation was undertaken by the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez. At that time, the United States Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee also held a hearing on alternatives to aversive therapies.
The JRC replied to a news story on the contents of the DRI appeal, calling the story "nothing more than a regurgitation of the outdated, false, and unproven accusations that have been made against JRC". The JRC stated that their treatments were often the last form of treatment for severely affected individuals, and that the treatments free them from "restraint, drugs, self-abuse, and all the severe pain it was causing them, through the use of safe, effective, and far less intrusive behavioral treatment". The reply also stated that the evidence cited in the [M]DRI request grossly misstated information found on the JRC website, and misquoted statements made by former students to only show the interventions used while ignoring statements by students that the treatments were effective and permitted them to live better lives, and that "It would be torture to not treat these students and allow them to be chemically restrained and warehoused for the rest of their lives."
As the result of a 2011 ruling by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration imposed rules that only residents whose treatment plans were approved before that time and included the use of the GED, were still permitted to use it. Students and residents entering JRC since 2011 may not have the GED included in their treatment plan.
Parent support and criticism
Parents of difficult children have been both highly supportive and critical of the center's practices; the center has been both praised for the progress that residents have made, while others have criticized and even sued the school based on their use of aversives.
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