Therapy or the Worst Kind of Child Abuse

 Current Trends by Natasha Sapp

When most people think of shock therapy they probably picture Russell Crow’s character in A Beautiful Mind, a movie set in the 1950’s about a man who was brilliant mathematically but also schizophrenic, a scene out of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, book or movie, detailing a mental institution in the midst of the civil rights movement; they certainly don’t think it has any modern day application in psychology, medicine, anywhere else outside tasers used by police as a nonlethal form of apprehension, a self-defense tool for women. Even then controversy has sprung up after people have died, been permanently injured via law enforcement officers over use, inappropriate applications of the devices. Add to that what we now know about the nature, basis of psychiatric illness, everything from chemical imbalances related to depression, bipolar disorder,  to organic slight brain malformations linked to schizophrenia and it seems almost unconscionable what we used to do to disturbed people, from once mistaking them for demon possessed to the arcane treatments employed to cure or manage their illness presenting a problem largely for society over the individual, i.e. the lobotomy performed in the latter story. Facts proven all the more with regards to behavioral disorders, autism, how many of these things have a chemical, neuroscience basis, how early intervention therapies and other regiments can virtually move children off the autism spectrum over time if caught early enough, how unconventional approaches can reach the formerly unreachable child. So imagine the horror and indignation recent news watchers must have felt, specifically anyone with a mental illness, having a child, loved one with autism seeing the CBS news report last week reporting lawsuits against the Judge Rotenberg Center, who treats individuals with autism and behavioral disorders, after a video surfaced in 2012 from a decade before showing a student in 4 point restraints, arms and legs shocked 31 times over 7 consecutive hours. Yet despite one pending lawsuit, the video related case resulting in an out of court settlement along with the FDA considering evidence to ban the practice altogether, even the UN weighing in calling it a form of torture, this private institution remains currently open for business, open to torment school/college age kids, open to abuse the weakest and most vulnerable in society out of sight of their desperate parents looking for relief, looking for viable solutions.

Nor is this the first time this center has been prominent news for the same reason; it was profiled by ABC News as a Prime Time investigation in as early as 2007 exposing the barbaric treatment the center’s founder says helped turn kids who were aggressive, violent towards others, hitting themselves, punching themselves, banging their heads so hard they could potentially lose their eyesight to smiling, affectionate, interactive human beings. However at what cost, not only the center’s gargantuan price tag at $ 200,000 per year, routinely needed years upon years at a time going well into high school and college ages, but the human cost, the hidden effect on students not immediately, obviously documented; testimonials from people like Jennifer Msumba who just recently told CBS she was shocked daily, who stated in her own words she felt like she was being punished for being born, that she used to pray to god to make her heart stop so she wouldn’t feel the pain, the feelings that came with “treatment.” Descriptions that line up with what both ABC’s Cynthia McFadden and the CNN/Anderson Cooper anchor said about the shock when it was administered to them as a sample of what students feel; the former saying she was glad it’s over, the other jerking her arm backwards and appearing to be in genuine, significant pain, several students hooked up to voltage, yes voltage, up to5 times the sample. A far cry from the comparison to a bee sting the school uses to explain their eyebrow raising “therapy;” Msumba is now in a group home in Florida utilizing music therapy coupled with positive reinforcement. Andre McCollins, whose mother settled with the center, and her legal counsel both, told media and court officials he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and was originally left in a catatonic state post the incident made public in 2012; at least one photo obtained by CBS also appears to show a burn on his leg garnered during his stent in Rotenberg. And he was clearly verbal, had some use of vocabulary, able to clearly express pain, make it evident he wanted what was happening to stop; many students there are non-verbal, have never spoken a single word, factors that don’t influence their decision in using shock therapy. Going on to defend themselves pointing out a state judge and the students’ parents sign off on each case where shock is used; little comfort realistically considering local judges across the country have made eye-popping rulings lately sentencing a man convicted of the rape of a minor to a diversionary program, another initially giving a teacher who raped a student 30 days behind bars before it was investigated, judges discounting accusations of rape based on the victim’s wearing skinny jeans. We all remember the family court judge thrust into national spotlight, eventually being voted out of his judgeship after a video of  him “spanking” [cough] beating his 16 year old, born with cerebral palsy, daughter with a belt after not getting off the computer when told, allegedly illegally downloading materials. Judges who prior to 2012 may have had no concept of the extent, the lengths the school was going to, to discipline people under their care; judges who, for all the public knows, are handpicked as go to by the center because remain blissfully, for them,  unaware of the video.

shock therapy pic

Further stacking against the school, beyond you know something is drastically wrong when the United Nations is pressuring the U.S. to stop its violations of statutes on torture, not of Gitmo detainees, not of criminals but of teens and adults with developmental, behavioral disabilities, declarations they made 4 years in 2010; also state legislature members have been trying to shut the Rotenberg down for years finding the very idea horrifically abusive. Particularly in the era of you can’t justifiably hit a dog, you can’t hit a prisoner, people have raged about the very existence of Gitmo vs. obvious torture, unnecessary humiliation like AbuGhraib. Next founder and creator Mathew Israel, in a deal with persecutors, was forced to step down from operations of the school after years and years of trying to hide tapes like the one showing what transpired with McCollins, even destroying tapes to shield his institution from investigation in 2 states; if they had nothing to hide, followed the laws, why was their need to destroy anything, why the cover-up, why was he convicted of misleading a grand jury and accessory after the fact in Massachusetts? Audio revealed on Anderson Cooper’s CNN program circa 2012 detailing why the 16 year old was initially shocked and eye witness accounts from a former staffer regarding day to day general treatment do nothing to bolster the schools image or demonstrate why it should stay open. In fact it does the exact opposite, when maybe there is a thin shred of reasoning for employing such extreme measures if the choice is eyesight or not, Brandon who was starving himself, a situation of being alive and not, another long term student who had knocked his father’s teeth out during an autistic outburst; it’s hardly worth it for “refusing to take off your coat,” the action that began McCollins 7 hour ordeal part of which was spent strapped to a table yelling no, no, help, help, ow, ow, that hurts. Evidence paralleling the former employee appearing on CNN saying he was forced to shock kids for “being out of seat without permission,” whether the student was out of their seat to give you a hug, stood in the process of raising their hand for permission to use the bathroom; attorneys for JRC countering visual proof with the flimsy argument they are the only place filming 100% of interactions with students, thinking that will change scenes before our eyes, absolve them of the blatantly inhumane treatment of human beings. The cruel reality they created and perpetuated where these minor infractions, which anywhere else would result in any school age person perhaps getting sent to the principal’s office, for a problem behavior student the most severe thing they would face, a suspension, expulsion; for this students are subjected to pain. Contradicting the center’s direct inference shocks were only given for the worst behaviors dangerous head banging, biting, self-mutilation, violence towards staff, fellow students, but coinciding with details given by Msumba, expounded on by CBS, naming hand flapping as a shock worthy offense, the former indicating shocks were administered randomly, parents did not see all the things that went on, her own mother unaware she had been subjected to nearly identical manhandling as McCollins before transferring out of the facility. Drawing focus to concerns about their motivation outside greed to maximize occupancy/enrollment at $200,000 a pop, doing so by preying on strung out, frayed parents, handling their child 25/8 often unable to take a break, go for a walk, sleep consistent hours, then coming to them like a modern day snake oil salesman saying I have hope, I have a cure for you, absolutely sick and sadistic.   

Speaking of parents, more disturbing on many levels is listening to the accounts of those who consider their children success stories of the Judge Rotenberg Center; one mother who told ABC in 2007 when it goes from 40 shocks in one week to 18 the next…a majority reading would stop right here exclaiming, they shocked your child 40 times in one week and you continued to not only let them, but let him stay there? The mother and father of Joshua Wood speaking for the current CBS interview recounting what it was like when he would throw tantrums, get violent, having to lock themselves and their daughter in the bedroom praying he wouldn’t hurt himself, vs. now receiving hugs, being able to take him on a lunch outing, seeing him smile, yet they had never seen him get shocked only saying they had seen him right after and he was perfectly fine, a giant red flag there is a high probability of denial, sticking your head in the sand. Mirroring directors who deny the children, college age participants fear the shock, despite older video footage of news personnel asking them about it and a student physically trying to pull, lead them away from a shock device control on a staffer. The present person in charge not even able to call it what it is a shock, an intentional infliction of pain, instead calling it an application, painting viewers a picture their methods are somehow freeing, liberating less terrible than the hell of self-mutilation, self-harm and acting out aimed at others. Even stating they know what they are getting shocked for, completely opposing tests that show very low I.Q.’s, comprehension and yes, new technology has proven there is usually more happening, more awareness in the autistic person than previously believed, previously demonstrated. But not everyone; the point being you cannot know for sure and what if they don’t have the capacity to connect “bad” behavior and the pain inflicted? Remembering too autism is not a mental illness, where thought redirection is most effective, but a neurological disorder; such shock could, though called harmless and administered to the skin via arms, legs torso, not the head, close to the brain, cause interference in brain neuro-electric impulses, resulting in more diminishing of an already diminished capacity of persons to learn, comprehend and understand the world around them. They are the only school in the entire country to both use and get away with using this horrific method of loosely labeled aversion therapy; never mind we are miles away from telling a person to snap a rubber band on their wrist when bombarded by negative thoughts, compulsions to bite their nails, smoke cigarettes, drink or have that extra slice of pizza, something noted they are in control of when and how they use it. As opposed to the shocks totally controlled by JRC staff members, students never knowing where they are going to be shocked; scenarios critics say can escalate negative, aggressive behaviors especially in persons with autism due to their need for control, routine, need to know what’s coming, the constant stress’ effect on undesirable behavior patterns. Still Mr. Israel defends his school, his methods presenting the alternatives as they are either sent to him or a burden on the state, institutionalized, drugged to the gills on psychotropic medications leaving them semi-conscious, catatonic or in jail. Except, side stepping the falsehood of his zero sum assessment for a moment, his success stories are always going to be “a burden to the state,” one was yes working in the school’s kitchen, living in a group home across the street; however, said group home is likely run by state tax dollars. Others like Joshua Wood, Jenifer Msumba were never, under current medical technologies and therapies out there today, taking into account their current ages going to live completely independently in the first place always needing some level of ongoing care. Now there is of course how much care, the cost of that care with and without JRC, but then there is humanity and dignity; far more important than price tag.

Sadly the Massachusetts center represents just one in a long list of things repeatedly done to children on the autism spectrum, suffering violent behavior disorders, people afflicted with mental illness; rebirthing was a popular theory and technique to explain why some children, adults seemed to be detached, violent tracing it back to a traumatic birth and by engaging in a simulated birthing process in a psychologists office, with parents present, able to work through their anger, be assured they are safe, loved, have those initial fears soothed it eliminated the violent behavior, until it was discontinued after people died of asphyxiation. ETC (electro convulsive therapy) easily GRE’s (Graduated Electronic Decelerator) bastard older cousin, similar to the treatments mimicked in A Beautiful Mind, now done supposedly under general anesthesia was still being used to treat severe depression as late as 2008 in the United States, sans patients experiencing huge gaps in memory, both short and long term, patients being terrified by pain, complete disorientation, inability to know where they are and what’s going on after treatment, permanent cognitive impairment. Coming back to children, in addition to the ever growing bag of mind altering drugs given out like candy to foster children as a quick fix band aid for kids who need loving parents, consistency and a permanent, stable home, there are the lengths schools are going to, to combat autistic kids’, severe behavioral disorders kids’ disruptive tendencies in increasingly mainstreamed public school classrooms. Windowless, padded seclusion, scream rooms kids have been left in for entire school days, placed in restraining bags complete with balls you see in play places reportedly specifically designed for the purpose, restraining holds that have literally lead to suffocation and death for refusing to stop playing basketball, disrupting class, as opposed to true violence. Worst of all this seems to be happening because we are collectively screaming we don’t know what else to do so this is what we are doing in lieu of actual tangible, solutions; critics fears about persons with autism, similar types of disorders causing violent outbursts, difficult to manage behaviors are absolutely confirmed in the video below shown as a counter to JRC and desperate tactics employed by poorly trained, over worked, unimaginative, impatient public school officials, depicting a school for children with behavior problems where they refuse to use restraining holds, shocks, put their hands on any student in a negative way. When one began to throw a tantrum about something he believed was unfair, tried to hit a teacher, she simply moved, he seemed to be either in a classroom by himself or not going after fellow classmates far enough away not to bother him, waited for him to calm and went back to whatever the task was. Compelling is what these kids told interviewers about being restrained, the feelings it evokes; resentment, anger top on the list as is the tendency to strike out stemming from fear of being trapped, held, confined that way repeatedly, to avoid ever being put in a helpless, powerless position again. Echoing Jenifer Msumba’s powerful words, “it’s easy to control people when you hurt them,” these are the same arguments against both spanking normal children and in some ways against spousal abuse and animal cruelty; yes you may succeed in, paraphrasing one commenter responding to the CBS news airing, hitting your dog, your spouse enough times to get them to comply with commands, instructions, but little else. You haven’t taught a young child why what they did was wrong, why you didn’t want them doing X in the first place, that they could get hurt, by more they just you, doing whatever they were doing, you’ve taken away the rights and dignity of an adult when you hit your spouse, refusing to deal with why you need so much control you feel you have to hit, why you believe your marriage partner must obey you instead of being seen, treated as an equal, made them afraid not willing to comply because they love you, understand you, want you to be happy. Lastly when you hit a dog they certainly don’t understand what they have done wrong; it hasn’t addressed the issue of why the puppy peed on the carpet, chewed your shoe or got into the trash. That they were board, missed you, need more chew toys, exercise, may have separation anxiety or someone forgot to let them out for hours on end takes a back seat to your annoyance, the mess you have to clean up, how betrayed you feel about what they did implying an intent that’s not there. How similar it is to our attitudes regarding people with developmental disabilities, autism, behavior disorders.                               

<Returning us to Mr. Israel’s JRC or else comparison, while his analogies might have been correct, methods might have been the best, the only thing to offer in the 70’s 80’s when he started out, early 90’s regarding outcomes for violently disturbed, disabled persons; science, medicine and psychology have evolved where he has not. Forget Mr. Israel is in his 70’s or 80’s now, who studied under B.F. Skinner in college at Harvard during the 1950’s, what could easily be called American psychologies dark ages the decade of  decidedly, later ruled unethical, projects like  MK Ultra followed by closely by the Milgram experiment in the nearly identical 1960’s. He continually refers to kids, adult persons who will be drugged out of what mind they have in an institution utterly dismissing the people who have a duel, triple or quadruple accurate, multilevel tested diagnoses including autism and legitimate psychiatric disorder necessitating medication; people who suffer developmental delay overlapped with autistic tendencies, people who are yes autistic also taking medicine for anxiety, depression, sleep or who do have more severe psychological problems hallucinations, other psychosis, thought disorders. He disregards people who are on medication, maybe several, who are not zombies, who are not catatonic, who without their medication would be unable to sleep, constantly climbing the walls, unable to be still vs. able to watch TV, play video games, enjoy a meal, participate in a classroom setting, learn; people who are helped, more functional, experience less symptoms, feel better because they take medication. Not once has he said we need better mental health facilities across the board willing to treat persons over just warehousing them, endeavoring to listen, to them help solve their problems, understand why they fight taking their medications, releasing the ones who can be vs. locking them up and throwing away the key, out of sight out of mind. Not once has he suggested we need better drugs than the decades old, side effect ridden ones currently used on the mentally ill, perhaps we need drugs geared toward helping people with autism manage their symptoms too. Rather than acknowledging the work of places like the Lawlis Peavey neurological center, their radical, non-invasive, cures that solve problem at the core in the brain, disorder management where cure isn’t possible, based on brain scans, scientific, medically sanctioned tests, approved under medical ethics that uncover genuine disorder over traditional interviews and cataloging of symptoms then trying this drug, that drug and another, he seems oblivious to techniques beyond his own. Probably has in his program long term residents, students who lack the compound, complete diagnose that would be given today because they were admitted in the 80’s early 90’s, raising serious questions about their recruitment tactics, their referral process, how new students find their way to Rotenberg over the more modern methodology, approach. We’ve outlawed reparative therapy used to “cure” gays from their disease, abnormality of being gay, but we still allow this place to stay open, we still allow schools to do anything to contain these kids, these people, society’s undesirables by any means necessary.

And there are alternatives, much of the repetitive self-injury, punching, biting violence directed at parents, siblings, caregivers and therapists is a definitive marker for extreme frustration usually seen in non-verbal’s, those with a limited vocabulary; key finding communication tools that allow them to express their wants, needs, feelings. Joshua Hood uses an i-pad to communicate everything from breakfast orders to answering interview questions for a 2012 60 Minutes feature about technology impacting those with developmental delays like autism, removing the isolation felt when relatives at family gatherings couldn’t slow down long enough for him to peck out words on a laminated alphabet sheet, the charades played by his mother, household members trying to understand what he wanted, needed. The app AutisMate revolutionized Joe’s world from pointing to objects he wanted indicating everything from snack choices to a need for the toilet; using pictures showing Joe setting the table in the morning for breakfast, taking out the garbage eliminated the frustration of him having to decipher symbols in order to understand what was requested of him. He too is now able to go into a restaurant and order food, also able to demonstrate to his teachers what he knows and understands reportedly much calmer, less aggressive, less likely to bite himself; his family directly attributing it to him being able to make himself understood. Therapy pets and service dogs can make crucial differences in the lives of more than just people with physical disabilities, suffering from seizures, dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar, all things dogs have been trained to alert their owners, their families to. In addition to tracking a child who may not be able to speak, who is extremely weary of strangers and prone to wandering off, they inherently produce a calming effect on such children and adults reducing anxiety without medication, quelling tantrums, lessening the intensity thereof, cause them to be able to attend a regular classroom, go to the grocery store without parents having to worry about wandering off, stop repetitive behaviors like wall climbing. One father whose son became unresponsive as a toddler noticed his love and continued fixation with Disney movies long after most had outgrown them; in a spark of inspiration he tried to engage his son in conversation speaking as Iago from Aladdin, at which point the son responded by answering his father’s question succinctly and coherently. This evolved into the family converting their basement into a play space where they could go down there the son act out scenes from his favorite videos in order to express his feelings, learn vital communication skills.

Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking stories is that of Carly Fleischmann and what she was ultimately able to tell her family and the world about what it means to live with autism. Years and years of therapy did nothing for her until one day when sick and increasingly desperate she went over to her parents computer and was able to type hurts, help then throwing up; finally seeing her potential family and therapists were able to work with her teaching her if you want something you have to type for it, indicate it by typing, and if you type something we’ll see what we can do about getting it, you can have control over your environment. What came out was much more; not only was she able to type words, communicate ideas on foods she liked, places she wanted to go, love for her parents, cherished activities she was able to tell people things like she feels like she’s living in a body she can’t control, she knows right from wrong but how hard it is to sit still when you feel like your legs are on fire, thousands of ants are crawling up your arms, you feel if you don’t bang your head it will explode, answering a decades old mystery as to why so many autistic persons repetitively flap their hands, fail their arms and other similar behaviors. Rocking, humming and covering their ears she details is a response to sensory overstimulation; benign things we come in contact with everyday can be excruciatingly loud, bright or irritating; their unwillingness to make eye contact Carly describes as taking a thousand pictures of a person’s face when they look at them, imagine what it would be like to have the compound eyes of an insect, the multiple eyes of a spider. You might not want to look everything full in the face either; underscoring the idea these individuals, child or adult, are not doing things to tick you off, make your day worse, to be defiant. At worst they are doing it to have some control over their own bodies, their own world; mostly they are doing it to cope. Raising questions about who has the real problem here, us or them, who the heck we think we are forcing grueling therapies on them to make them normal, when they are clearly not, when they have a confirmed diagnosis all so we don’t have to deal with it, don’t want to see it, are uncomfortable with the rocking, muttering, take the refusal to look directly at a person as deceit, shiftiness instead of a marker to a medical problem, shyness, nervousness. Leading into conversations about what can we do to help people with autism spectrum disorders, behavioral problems alleviate their symptoms causing them to be happier and better able to function toward that end, not just our perceptions, comfort level; in Carly’s case could medicine for OCD help eliminate, reduce the legs on fire, ants crawling on arms, must bang head feeling. Many autistic persons have trouble with sensory input sights, sounds, smell, taste that can be mitigated by lowering lighting, wearing sunglasses to a store or place with florescent lighting, going at night with less traffic and people, one high functioning autistic moved to the country escaping city noise, one boy’s mother reported his hated of the school cafeteria; when allowed to eat in the classroom, world of difference.  Would you keep clothes on that were scratchy, itchy, the new from the store smell or detergent scent was over powering or disgusting to you; welcome to the life of an autism spectrum person. Yet all their parents, caregivers know is the randomly remove their clothes or refuse to put them on; here try different brands of underwear, socks shirts that appear less irritating, scentless detergent, try washing newly bought things before wearing. See what works before just expecting everyone, these differently wired individuals to fit into your box.                


About Natasha Sapp

Proclaiming an edgy voice of reason to America,while bringing back the common sense to social issues.

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