One of the biggest local controversies of the 1980s has come to a quiet conclusion in a Washington, D.C., boardroom.
The Food and Drug Administration earlier this month banned electrical shock devices used to discourage aggressive, self-harming behavior in patients with mental disabilities.
The decision follows years of pressure from disability rights groups and mental health experts who have called the treatment outdated, ineffective and unethical. The ban shows that public sentiment has more fiercely mounted against physical punishment.
The prohibition is directed entirely at one place, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center of Canton, the only program in the United States to use the treatment.
Though based in Canton, JRC, as it now known, has several group homes, including ones in Attleboro, Mansfield, Norton, Rehoboth and Seekonk.
The controversy also first erupted locally.
In the early 1980s, two patients died under the care of the center — then known as the Behavior Research Institute — at group homes in Attleboro and Seekonk. The center’s tactics then included slaps, pinches and water sprays to discourage patients’ frequently violent behavior.
The state attempted to ban the treatment, but Judge Ernest Rotenberg of Attleboro decided in Bristol County Probate Court that aversives, as they were known, were the only thing that worked against these severely disabled patients. He ruled in favor of parents, who opposed the ban, saying the treatment was a last resort.
Behavior Research Institute founder Matthew Israel thought so much of the ruling that he renamed his center for Judge Rotenberg.
Over the years, JRC moved away from slaps and pinches. Instead, the school only uses shock devices carried in students’ backpacks, which were attached to their arms and legs via electrodes. School staffers trigger a two-second shock to a patient’s skin by using a remote controller.
Students compare the shocks to a bee sting or worse, but some have been known to burn the patients’ skin.
However, electric shocks and other painful or unpleasant physical treatments have grown out of favor. Instead, mainstream psychiatry now relies on behavioral modification, prescription drugs and other therapies that have proven more effective.
“Through advancements in medical science, there are now more treatment options available to reduce or stop self-injurious or aggressive behavior,” Dr. William Maisel, a director in the FDA’s device center, said in a statement.
There have been several attempts in the Massachusetts Legislature to ban the shocks, without success.
“If we tried to apply this brutal device to a prisoner in Guantanamo or someone in Abu Ghraib, there would be worldwide outrage,” a state legislator said. “In fact, it’s against the Eighth Amendment in our country, right? Cruel and unusual punishment. But we allow it for these innocent children. It’s just not right.”
Although the FDA has taken the unusual step of banning the treatment, the story may not be over. The school, with the backing of parents, plans to appeal the ruling.
“We will continue to fight to keep our loved ones safe and alive and to retain access to this treatment of last resort which has allowed them to live a productive life,” said members of the Rotenberg’s parent association, in a statement. “There is simply no alternative.”
One of the Attleboro area’s biggest stories from four decades ago may not be over yet.