MA court rules in favor of center providing controversial skin shocks

BOSTON — A residential home for people with autism and severe intellectual and intellectual disabilities can administer controversial electric skin shocks on new patients with court approval, the Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday.

“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.

Advocates and some former residents of Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton have protested for years against the use of shocks.

Currently, the center is the only place in the U.S. that administers the shocks.

Electric shocks and other “aversive conditioning” strategies were once widely accepted.

But leading medical and behavioral groups call the shocks outdated at a time when positive reinforcement, behavioral modification and prescription drugs have proved more effective.

Still, some parents in Massachusetts have said the shocks have helped halt dangerous, self-injurious behavior.

As of 2020, about 45-50 people were receiving shocks.

Thursday’s ruling noted that currently no children are receiving shocks.

“This case thus involves a heart-wrenching issue: continue to protect a controversial practice that has widely been criticized, or pave the way for its prohibition at the risk of subjecting these vulnerable patients to a life of sedation and restraint, or extreme self-injury,” the ruling said.

The state barred new patients from getting shocks in 2011 through regulations.

But the ruling Thursday said those regulations cannot interfere with a 1987 decree allowing limited use of the shock devices.

The ruling says department can contest individual decisions - or await a potential legislative ban.

“If the department seeks to get out from under the decree, it must either wait for a legislative solution, provide more robust evidence that electric skin shock is outside the standard of care than the record it relied upon in 2016, or establish an ongoing record of good faith regulatory conduct toward JRC,” the ruling says. “In the interim, of course, the department is always free to intervene in any individual substituted judgment proceeding where it objects to the use of the GED for a particular patient.”

The Judge Rotenberg Center said it’s pleased by the ruling, and that clients approved for electrical shocks tend to have self-injurious behaviors that can result in blindness and mutilation.

“The ruling ensures that the lifesaving, court approved electrical stimulation device (ESD) treatment remains available to those for whom all other treatment options have been tried and failed,” reads a statement provided by a spokesperson.

The spokesperson said the center has no plans to start using the devices on new patients.

25 Investigates has learned the FDA plans to ban the use of the electric shock devices for self-injurious or aggressive behavior as soon as December.

Leo Sarkissian, executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, pointed out that the United Nations has deemed the use of the electric shock devices as torture.

He acknowledged concerns from parents who support the use of the devices – but said society should view the issue as a matter of human rights.

“Even prisoners are not allowed to get corporal punishment, according to the U.N. charter and U.N. rules,” he said. “We even have laws about dogs and other pets in Massachusetts preventing corporal punishment. So I still think the time will come and it might be very soon that people appreciate we shouldn’t be treating people with disabilities differently.”

He called for more focus on evidence-driven treatment options for society’s most vulnerable.

“We don’t fully understand why people can be self-abusive,” Sarkissian said. “But we do know that with the proper assessment and time taken, that we can find other ways to solve that.”

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

Download the FREE Boston 25 News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Boston 25 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch Boston 25 News NOW