Shocking Stuff About How We Treat Children

The next time I’m feeling sorry for myself for how hard my job can be at times, maybe I’ll go back and reread the article below about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts. No matter how much I sometimes feel like I’m in Dante’s Ninth Circle when I’m at work, this place sounds so much worse. But then, I would never take a job at a place like this because I don’t agree with how they treat their employees or their children. I am willing to accept that for some severely retarded or autistic children, pain may be the only way to get them to stop self-abusive and assaultive behaviors, but I do not believe these practices can be broadened out to work for “higher functioning” children with behavior and mood problems. From Jennifer Gonnerman, writing for Mother Jones:

Rob Santana awoke terrified. He’d had that dream again, the one where silver wires ran under his shirt and into his pants, connecting to electrodes attached to his limbs and torso. Adults armed with surveillance cameras and remote-control activators watched his every move. One press of a button, and there was no telling where the shock would hit—his arm or leg or, worse, his stomach. All Rob knew was that the pain would be intense.

Every time he woke from this dream, it took him a few moments to remember that he was in his own bed, that there weren’t electrodes locked to his skin, that he wasn’t about to be shocked. It was no mystery where this recurring nightmare came from—not A Clockwork Orange or 1984, but the years he spent confined in America’s most controversial “behavior modification” facility.

In 1999, when Rob was 13, his parents sent him to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, located in Canton, Massachusetts, 20 miles outside Boston. The facility, which calls itself a “special needs school,” takes in all kinds of troubled kids—severely autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar, emotionally disturbed—and attempts to change their behavior with a complex system of rewards and punishments, including painful electric shocks to the torso and limbs. Of the 234 current residents, about half are wired to receive shocks, including some as young as nine or ten. Nearly 60 percent come from New York, a quarter from Massachusetts, the rest from six other states and Washington, D.C. The Rotenberg Center, which has 900 employees and annual revenues exceeding $56 million, charges $220,000 a year for each student. States and school districts pick up the tab.

The Rotenberg Center is the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers or child molesters or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons. Over its 36-year history, six children have died in its care, prompting numerous lawsuits and government investigations. Last year, New York state investigators filed a blistering report that made the place sound like a high school version of Abu Ghraib. Yet the program continues to thrive—in large part because no one except desperate parents, and a few state legislators, seems to care about what happens to the hundreds of kids who pass through its gates.

In Rob Santana’s case, he freely admits he was an out-of-control kid with “serious behavioral problems.” At birth he was abandoned at the hospital, traces of cocaine, heroin, and alcohol in his body. A middle-class couple adopted him out of foster care when he was 11 months old, but his troubles continued. He started fires; he got kicked out of preschool for opening the back door of a moving school bus; when he was six, he cut himself with a razor. His mother took him to specialists, who diagnosed him with a slew of psychiatric problems: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Rob was at the Rotenberg Center for about three and a half years. From the start, he cursed, hollered, fought with employees. Eventually the staff obtained permission from his mother and a Massachusetts probate court to use electric shock. Rob was forced to wear a backpack containing five two-pound, battery-operated devices, each connected to an electrode attached to his skin. “I felt humiliated,” he says. “You have a bunch of wires coming out of your shirt and pants.” Rob remained hooked up to the apparatus 24 hours a day. He wore it while jogging on the treadmill and playing basketball, though it wasn’t easy to sink a jump shot with a 10-pound backpack on. When he showered, a staff member would remove his electrodes, all except the one on his arm, which he had to hold outside the shower to keep it dry. At night, Rob slept with the backpack next to him, under the gaze of a surveillance camera.

Employees shocked him for aggressive behavior, he says, but also for minor misdeeds, like yelling or cursing. Each shock lasts two seconds. “It hurts like hell,” Rob says. (The school’s staff claim it is no more painful than a bee sting; when I tried the shock, it felt like a horde of wasps attacking me all at once. Two seconds never felt so long.) On several occasions, Rob was tied facedown to a four-point restraint board and shocked over and over again by a person he couldn’t see. The constant threat of being zapped did persuade him to act less aggressively, but at a high cost. “I thought of killing myself a few times,” he says. [full text]

I recommend people read this full article, as Gonnerman does a nuanced job of showing the complexity of this issue, including how journalists such as Connie Chung were possibly silenced by parents of children treated at the Judge Rotenberg Center. The ending passage is also quite telling. It describes Dr. Israel in the “fix-it” room for the shockers, where he handles one which has the unfortunate problem of going off without pushing the button. I wonder how long the child attached to that device was being shocked for no reason.

There is also a response from Dr. Israel in the comments at the end of the Mother Jones article, in which Dr. Israel asserts that Ms. Gonnerman’s story was rejected by The New York Times Sunday Magazine because it obviously wasn’t balanced journalism. Ms. Gonnerman has stated that the story was rejected by the Times because they they said it lacked sufficient national interest.


3 thoughts on “Shocking Stuff About How We Treat Children

  1. I wonder what would happen if the same practices in use at the Rotenberg Center were applied to a child with Tourette’s Disorder. In other words, would a child be given a shock for manifesting a vocal or motor tic, something they could not reasonably be expected to control? Many of these high functioning children, with their various psychiatric diagnoses (some of which may be decidedly inaccurate), are presumably in the throes of some sort of disorder or difficulty that seriously challenges their capacity to regulate their emotions and behavior. However disturbed they may be, should they be subjected to a painful shock—repeatedly—for that which is not entirely under their control? And some of their behavior is certainly within the norms of their stage of development. Are they shocked for such, as well?

    I got no sense from Ms. Gonnerman’s fine article that the Rotenberg Center offers the higher functioning children unfortunate enough to be deposited there any other therapeutic support beyond painful behavior modification. I was particularly distressed to note the absence of virtually any relational interaction in the classrooms and among the staff. How are children who struggle to relate—both to themselves and to others—supposed to acquire the relational skills they lack without being given opportunity to practice such skills or observe the adults model such skills? Aversion therapy is no more the end-all and be-all than pharmacotherapy. Whatever these children may need (and I do not question their needs are considerable), it is most decidedly not the cruelty-masquerading-as-treatment offered by the Rotenberg Center. Just like the prison camp at Guantanamo, the place should be closed down.

  2. Ms. Gonnerman’s article “School of Shock,� which appears in the September/October issue of the Mother Jones magazine, is an entirely one-sided and biased account of the court- and parent-approved behavior modification therapy used at the Judge Rotenberg Center to successfully treat, without drugs, severe (sometimes life-threatening) behavior problems of children and young adults with special needs that have not responded to any other form of treatment. For readers who would like to hear the other side of this story, please see

    Matthew L. Israel
    Executive Director
    Judge Rotenberg Educational Center

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