Marlborough Democrat Fighting Against Shock Therapy Treatment

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State Representative Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough) wants to see an end to electric shock therapy used on people with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities in Massachusetts.

Gregoire said she does not want to shut down the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, which uses shock therapy. However, she wants to prevent the Canton facility from using its graduated electronic decelerator. She compared the device to a dog electric fence for people.

Some parents of children with records of aggressive and dangerous behavior have argued that the device works and that nothing else is quite as effective.

A bill (H.180) that would outlaw the practice received a hearing at the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities earlier this week. Gregoire filed it.

The hearing occurred two months after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Judge Rotenberg Education Center can continue using electric shock devices, while not ruling out future state regulation of the matter, according to Reuters.

Gregoire is hopeful that having new co-chairmen of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities this session — state Senator Robyn Kennedy (D-Worcester) and state Representative Jay Livingstone (D-Back Bay) — will help advance the bill this year. Similar versions have been effectively killed in previous sessions.

More than 30 Massachusetts state legislators have co-sponsored Gregoire’s proposal.

“Science is not involved in what happens at the place with that device,” Gregoire said at a committee hearing Monday, November 13, according to State House News Service. “Obviously, this is something that I’m very passionate about, and I want to continue to work with members of this committee, as well as the members of both of our bodies, to see if there’s something we can get across the finish line because the whole ‘how is this legal’ and ‘how does it still happen’ is a conversation every single time that I have when I speak with someone about this.”

The lawmaker noted that the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center the only facility in the country that uses this treatment method.

The Stop the Shock Coalition argues that the center does not have to reserve shocks for extreme cases. It said the center has the authority to use them in response to “simple and innocuous” actions like hand flapping, standing up, or closing eyes, according to a report released this year.

Nathan Blenkush, the clinical director of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, said the device is an “extraordinary treatment” when dealing with patients who engage in serious self-harm. Injuries such patients have caused themselves include blindness, lost body parts, and chronic wounds, he said.

Blenkush told lawmakers that some patients had hit their heads thousands of times daily. He said that some hit their heads through glass windows, either at home or on buses. Some patients express so much aggression that they need eight people to tackle and restrain them, he also said.

“These are not conditions that are treated in an outpatient setting with just a drug or just an outpatient talk therapy or something like that,” Blenkush said during the hearing, according to State House News Service. “These are conditions that are chronic, that start at an early age and persist through years of intervention, years of special education to the point where the patient has to leave their family at 10 or 11 years old, where they find themselves in psychiatric hospitals not just for a week — some of our patients have been there for years looking for places that are going to accept and treat them.”

Blenkush argued that patients approved for the treatment see a nearly 100 percent drop in their severe behavior. He noted that some of these patients have needed emergency restraint over 5,000 times. Additionally, he said patients get less than one skin shock per week; he described this practice as “not very restrictive” compared to other forms of intervention.

Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee member Alex Bou-Rhodes said that aversive therapy, including electric shocks, are “ineffective and unethical.”

He noted that in other parts of the country, people with similar behavioral problems are treated without electric shock therapy.

“There’s no reason that people in Massachusetts shouldn’t be entitled to the same standard of care,” Bou-Rhodes said.

Bou-Rhodes encouraged lawmakers to read the federal Food and Drug Administration’s ban on electric shock devices that argues the therapy is “not appropriate and not supported by medical research.”

A federal appeals court overturned that ban in 2021. Gregoire said the Food and Drug Administration lacks the power to regulate the electric shock device, so she thinks the state needs to take action. 

“The ban was unlawful, and the FDA tried, and the Congress has tried, and basically the courts have left it to this Legislature to act on this issue,” Gregoire said. “So that’s why I’m coming again today to try to get us to act.”


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