Robinson '11 testifies in Rotenberg hearing
Seven members of Brandeis Students Against the Judge Rotenberg Center attended a Jan. 16 hearing of the Massachusetts legislature's Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, which is considering six bills intended to scale back or eliminate the practices of the Judge Rotenberg Center, a school for children with special needs located in Canton, Mass.The hearings were about aversive shock therapy's safety and effectiveness in treating behavioral disorders. House Bill H109 bans the use of aversive shock in the commonwealth of Massachusetts; another bill limits it to severe cases, and the students said the other four bills add technical details to the original two.
Nathan J. Robinson '11 testified before the committee on behalf of the campus group, which is seeking to stop the use of aversive shock therapy at the center largely through measures such as letter-writing campaigns, calling state legislators and posting on political blogs. The students also presented a petition signed by 644 Brandeis students calling for JRC's closure.
Robinson presented the petition and discussed how BSAJRC got started. He testified about the group's moral objections to aversive shock, including the fact that there are no scientific or legal assertions in support of shock therapy.
Robinson described his experience testifying as "very, very intimidating" because it was preceded by hours of listening to "depressing and moving" testimony by parents of JRC students favorable to the center.
In response to JRC founder Dr. Matthew Israel's testimony discussing measures taken to prevent mistaken shocks, club member Liza Behrendt '11 said she was surprised at "how unknowledgeable he was about his own institution." Lev Hirschhorn '11 said the hearings helped him realize "the sorry state of the medical system in America" that treats those with disabilities as criminals.
Robinson expressed emotional apprehension over the issue, and said that a parent approached him after the hearing and told him, "'You're young, and you don't understand.'"
JRC representative Ernie Corrigan sees the club's existence as "a clear sign that people don't understand what happens at JRC." However, Robinson and the other members maintain their conviction that "the disabled do have basic rights," which the JRC has violated.
According to Hirschhorn, BSAJRC advocates a "complex way of dealing" with behaviorally challenged individuals including limited use of drugs, positive reinforcement techniques such as "modeling", as opposed to the JRC's system of punishments and rewards. "Every kid is the wrong kid to be shocked," Hirschhorn says. Corrigan said, however, that, "if they're not getting help there, then they're not getting help."
Although Dr. Israel invited club members to the JRC, plans to visit were put on hold last semester when a representative asked that the club instead host a group of JRC parents.
Corrigan said the invitation for JRC parents to come to Brandeis was revoked because the club's "sole mission is opposition to JRC" and JRC administrators did not feel they had made a genuine attempt at "fact-finding and trying to understand what aversive therapy is about."
In September, Robinson told the Justice that "we've read news articles, consulted Web sites and heard many different perspectives about the use of aversive therapy. We really feel that we have all the facts." Hirschhorn said club leaders are still hoping to arrange a visit to the JRC this semester.
BSAJRC has communicated with students at other colleges and is one of about 20 other disabled rights organizations that oppose aversive shock therapy. The club intends to expand its grassroots efforts this semester. According to Hirschhorn, members have been in communication with former JRC employees who oppose the Center and a former student. These contacts, however, will not come to speak at Brandeis because they wish to remain anonymous.
The club faces an uncertain future if legislation regulating the JRC passes, but according to Robinson, it may expand its mission to "campaign for better mental health services" in general.