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Other Voices: Torturing children legally at taxpayers’ expense

August 15, 2021 | online article

Rachel Hott in her cap and gown
Rachel Hott

A cattle prod is a handheld device used to make cows move in the direction you want by applying relatively high voltage, low current electric shock. It can be quite effective. You can buy this device online for less than $600. They were repurposed in movies like “Alien” and Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” to torture bad aliens and bad gamblers.

Similar devices with similar technology were used on people with disabilities. Old-school behaviorists said it was a needed therapy.

New York banned this practice in 2005. In 2010, the United Nations labeled this as a form of torture. However, many states continued to allow this legalized abuse.

Ten years later, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), issued a final rule to ban the use of electrical stimulation devices to curb self-injurious or aggressive behavior. The FDA’s ruling overturned a decision that allowed the Judge Rotenberg Center, an institution for children with disabilities in Massachusetts, to use electric-shock devices.

Institutionalized children placed by local educational departments at a cost of over $1.3 million per student during a four-year period reside and are administered aversive conditioning within this center. Local child study teams choose this institution if they believe there are little other alternatives (they need to do more research). Local school taxes foot the bill for this modern medieval practice. The prohibition of electric shock devices was lifted this month.

Now, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the ban in July, ruling that “…the FDA lacks the statutory authority to ban a medical device for a particular use.”

A video of a young teenager at Rotenberg strapped face down and shocked 31 times over the course of seven hours because he would not take off his jacket at this center is easily found. He was screaming for help and asking for it to stop. He was hospitalized for a month. This court decision allows this inhumane approach to continue. There is even talk about using aversive conditioning again in California and other states.

I founded a nonprofit 32 years ago recognizing that institutional settings and aversive behavior modifications are wrong. At Community Options, we use only positive behavioral supports. We take the time to understand the needs of each person. We (and other agencies like ours) develop a customized plan and never resort to any punishments or negative conditioning. Strategies like trust, positive reinforcement and cognitive behavioral therapy are applied and we see positive results.

One ostensible success story is Rachel Hott. Rachel was placed into Rotenberg where she regularly received electric shock and aversive conditioning. In 2017, we moved Rachel to a small home in Maryland with staff from Community Options. Rachel’s behavior gradually improved while living in a neighborhood with positive support staff and local interaction.

In June 2021, Rachel graduated from high school. She proudly stood wearing a cap and gown to receive her high school diploma. Living in a home staffed with therapies like love and trust, she found the strength to succeed and lives a meaningful life devoid of torture.

We will continue to help children like Rachel across the country. Recently, we purchased a beautiful home for children with special needs in Penn Hills. In this home and in all of our homes, we will never use aversive conditioning. I am certain the children who live there will thrive.

Children should not continue to suffer because of bureaucratic equivocation. Electric shock must end. The FDA was right.

Robert Stack is the founder, president and CEO of Community Options Inc., which provides housing and employment for 5,000 people with disabilities across 10 states, including a residential facility in Penn Hills. He is a Pittsburgh-area native and graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School.