Bill to ban use of electric skin shock devices on people with disabilities dies in committee

CANTON, Mass. — A bill to ban the use of pain-causing procedures on people with disabilities in Massachusetts has again died in committee.

Supporters say the bill would have effectively banned the use of controversial electric skin shock devices at a Canton residential home for people with autism and severe intellectual disabilities.

Currently, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center is the only place in the U.S. that administers the shocks. As of 2020, about 45-50 people were receiving shocks.

The Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities sent the bill to study in February — effectively killing it this legislative session.

Opponents include some former students and leading medical groups, who say the devices are unnecessary, cruel, and ineffective in the long term.

A U.N. investigator has called their use torture.

But Judge Rotenberg Center staff and some parents say the devices help stop aggressive and harmful behaviors.

“The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) appreciates that families whose loved ones have had their lives saved through the use and availability of this treatment are being heard,” the Judge Rotenberg Center said in an emailed statement sent through a spokesperson.

Last September, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of continuing to allow the Judge Rotenberg Center to administer shocks on new patients with court approval.

“Thus, the department may not prospectively ban the use of level three aversives for all new patients, in the absence of changed circumstances, without running afoul of the consent decree,” reads the ruling.

The ruling said that the state Department of Developmental Services can contest individual decisions — or await a potential legislative ban.

Efforts to ban the devices have failed on Beacon Hill for years.

Sponsor and state Rep. Danielle Gregoire said she’ll continue pushing for the bill’s passage.

In a statement, the Democrat said: “I am disappointed with this outcome, but as we have done in the past, we will regroup and prepare for next session.”

25 Investigates found that the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center reported spending $60,000 on lobbying bills in Massachusetts in 2023 alone.

Their lobbyist reported opposing Gregoire’s bill.

The lobbyist reported being “neutral” on a Senate bill that would have required licensure for use of the shock devices.

That bill also died in committee.

Sponsor Sen. Paul Feeney, a Democrat of Foxborough, said he wants stronger guardrails about the use of pain-causing shock devices on vulnerable people in his district.

“I have extensive concerns about the use of pain-causing shock therapy on children and adults in my district or anywhere in the commonwealth,” he said in a statement. “I believe we need much stronger guardrails over and above existing state law, which is why I have filed legislation this session which takes the needed steps to ensure patient safety and regulations that require only demonstrated medical necessity for the administration of this potentially harmful practice. I look forward to continuing our work with my colleagues in the legislature to bring this and other pieces of legislation forward aimed at regulating and eventually bringing an end to aversive shock therapy.”

As of the September court ruling, no children were receiving shocks.

However, experts have questioned whether children ever witness anyone being shocked by the devices.

Last year, the FDA said it was weighing a ban on the use of the devices for aggressive behavior.

The FDA banned the devices in 2020 — but a court struck down the ban.

Congress later passed a law to allow an FDA ban.

25 Investigates will continue to follow the FDA’s next steps.

Last year, 25 Investigates revealed that the Department of Children and Families was placing children at the Judge Rotenberg Center.

25 Investigates also uncovered years of documented abuse at Judge Rotenberg Center — including physical abuse of children. Those abuse findings did not involve the use of shock devices.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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