Trigger warning for abuse employed against children at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center.
When I was in between college and my position as HIV Senior Specialist at Larkin Street Youth Services, I interviewed with a company that provided residential care for “disturbed” youth. I had my eye on social welfare and I wanted to work with people under 25 who had been struggling. Everyone out of college was having a hard time finding a job and this one was offering a decent wage for an entry position as a floor counselor at night. The interview was going well when I was asked by the team of 3 staffers how I would fare with the full contact procedures to handle an out of control child.
“Obviously it’s not about hurting people. We’ll provide training on how to use your body as a tool to help reduce the harm they pose to themselves and to those around them.” I stammered, came to a full stop, and said I didn’t think that was for me. The interview came to an awkward pause. At first I thought I was stupid and judgmental because some youth with different cognitive processes can pose a threat if they’re big and violent. I had a B.A. in literature so what did I know about psychology? Maybe it looked bad, but it couldn’t really be bad, could it? Most of all, I was worried that I turned down a job and that another one wouldn’t come along.
Lucky for me, it did and it was an agency that worked with homeless youth and I would be working in HIV/AIDS like I had always wanted. Every one of their facilities was 100% no contact, even in the event of a physical fight.
The place I worked wasn’t perfect and if you share a few glasses of a good pinot noir I’ll tell you all about why. In my head, they were aces in comparison to their cousin facility that did employ physical force on clients. The place I worked had behavior standards and the agency wasn’t afraid to pass on a difficult client. They made their best referrals and sometimes someone would be placed in residential addiction treatment, sometimes jail, and a lot of the time they were just told that they couldn’t sleep there anymore. There are a many ways to serve injustice other than laying a hand a child but there’s something visceral about employing brute force with anger that I’ve never had a stomach for doing but I know I could be trained to utilize under different circumstances.
One night, I was talking shop with other counselors. My agency was massive and had more than a dozen facilities and programs. My team with HIV/AIDS was handled with more secrecy and fewer numbers. Our work with HIV+ homeless youth scared a lot of the other staff who would frequently ask shitty questions like, “Aren’t you afraid they’re going to spit on you and you’ll get AIDS?” or “You don’t play sports with them, right? Cause of the sweat?” Someone new decided to speak up and talk about their older job back east. His job was to help monitor the shock backpacks used a center for the “extremely disturbed.”
He pulled up videos and pointed out that no one would be wearing a backpack at this school unless that backpack was full of electric stimulation equipment and that it was locked in place onto the children so they couldn’t remove it. It was a lush facility with tons of colors, state of the art computers, and lots of videos showing improvement in children that no one believed could ever advance beyond violently throwing their heads into walls or attacking others. “I know the shocking sounds bad,” said the counselor, “but it’s like some of them are possessed, it’s literally like devil possession.” His words fell into the party line as he provided the default P.R. for an office room of no contact counselors staring at a computer screen totally aghast that some facilities would go that far and moreover that the friendly, joking, and handsome young many in his late 20s standing next to us was willing to do it.
You could see ambivalence in his face and the remnants of cognitive dissonance that had caused him to move away and take a new job where there were no electric shocks to dispense and that option would never, ever be on the table.
That facility was the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts. It’s been the subject of controversy for years. It was written about in 2007 by Mother Jones and a followup appeared recently in NY Mag. Horror stories have emerged from the center with big money supporters. The Judge Rotenberg center may be the last place for many children with exceptional difficulties but it comes with a pricetag (“Between 2000 and 2005, the facility’s annual revenues grew from $18 million to more than $50 million. By 2006, New York State supplied nearly 60 percent of Israel’s residents—and about $30 million a year. (The annual cost per student was $220,000.)”) and its clients include some of the super wealthy who don’t know what to do with their problem relatives. It’s a place that looks great on tours and brochures and does do a lot in the way of behavior modification. But what cost for the clients? What cost to their families? And what cost to their staff?
The next day, Cheryl returned to the Rotenberg Center to find out exactly what had happened. She knew the place was wired with surveillance cameras, and she demanded to see the footage. In a conference room, she, her sister, and a friend sat down with four senior staffers and Andre’s psychologist to watch the tape. Cheryl expected to see Andre sprinting around and wreaking havoc while employees tried to stop him with shocks. Instead, the footage showed him tied face down to a four-point restraint board, each limb held in place by a locked cuff, his head encased in a helmet. She learned he had been held in this position for six hours, hollering and pleading whenever he got another shock. -NY Mag
The founder of the JREC is a very, very big fan of B.F. Skinner. For those who haven’t done a pedantic study of psychology, this is a terrifying thought about someone who wanted to work with autistic, schizophrenic, bipolar, and developmentally delayed children. Skinner uses a lot of euphemisms to talk about hurting people and the dehumanizing language he employs is enough to make anyone with a gut instinct of empathy for the vulnerable and marginalized people feel edgy. It’s a sterile, mechanical language that belongs to a horror movie and not a care residence.
A few years later, New York State officials did an inspection. “Superficially … the program is very impressive,” they wrote in a subsequent report. “Children, who are obviously handicapped, are engaged in activities and are seldom exhibiting inappropriate behaviors.” But, they concluded, “the children are controlled by the threat of punishment. When that threat is removed, they revert to their original behaviors.” Ultimately, the officials found the program’s effect on its students to be “the singular most depressing experience that team members have had in numerous visitations to human-service programs.”
Whenever abusive behavior is used for behavior modification, it’s going to be a problem all the way up the ladder. The type of abuse will be mitigated by how much power you have. I can promise that frontline staff don’t have much power. Although they might not get shocked, their jobs will be held over their head. It’s not hard for the head of the organization to force its hands on others. Threaten a job, threaten a bad record of work, reward those who employ the “corrective measures” and create a culture where you’re helping when you hurt a child. Put your least trained staff in the most dangerous situations where they will be forced to use violence to protect themselves from a client. The theory of behavior change alone gives us clues that repeating something will make a habit stick and it doesn’t take long.
If a staff member is queasy about shocking a child, you really only have to hold their hand or push them into the situation about 3 times before they’ll take initiative with corrective behavior themselves. It’s not hard to program anyone, client or staff. It all starts with vocabulary. For instance, at the JREC their unique, “shock device was known as the ‘graduated electronic decelerator’ or GED. Staffers didn’t shock residents but instead gave them GED ‘applications.’” If you say, “When child swears (a punishable offence at the JREC), electrocute them in retaliation” then very few people are going to raise their hands to volunteer. But a GED application? That sounds outright brotherly, doesn’t it?
Israel [the founder] sought to control not only his residents’ behavior but also the employees’. He wired his entire facility with surveillance cameras, which he used to make sure his employees were administering his program correctly. A team of staffers—known as “monitors”—watched these cameras 24/7. And he instituted a program encouraging employees to tell on their co-workers by writing up evaluations about one another. Negative write-ups were called “performance improvement opportunities” or PIOs. They ranged from a “friendly reminder” (“Please remember to follow staff dress code”) to “severe” (“failure to follow JRC policies”). Employees who received too many serious PIOs could find themselves out of a job.
I’m a sex worker with a porn history. No one is ever going to “let” me work with children or high school students and the stigma is so intense I would probably be kept far away from adult college students as well because my history of sexuality might harm someone. I feel a form of bitter anger when I realize that people who think that hurting others are considered trustworthy and safe. I feel a something like a howl in my gut when I realize that there are people making millions of dollars in the abuse industry and that there’s something stupid about me for wanting no part in a world like that. Working in sex is considered one of the lowest jobs you can take. I fuck on camera in all kinds of ways but I ask you, the reader, to really consider who the dangers to our children are because when I keep count it seems that priests, teachers, coaches, and social workers are the ones hurting and sex workers are the ones just working.
If hurting children is your goal, the last job you ever want to take is something in sex work because everyone is going to have their eyes on you. They’ll do background checks, make a fuss if you want to volunteer as an EMT, limit any job you might ever want to work in again to something either totally behind the scenes and forgotten, or push you into being the best business person, artist, writer, or other independent worker you can be because no one in this country wants to put you on their roster after you fucked for the rent.
Apparently, if you tell NY State you want to electrocute children in your creepy multi-million dollar Disney Hell House with locked on backpacks you’ll get referrals for people trusting you with their loved ones and desperate for answers.
The truth of it is, human psyches are fucking inconvenient and it takes endless and supported patience, training, and loving supervision. If Soteria Houses (de-institutionalized homes for individuals with schizophrenia or other extreme emotional disturbances) were able to take on clients from 17-35 without locks, without medical staff, and with an extreme focus on listening and being 100% present with everyone sharing the house to exceptional success then we know that there are other methods. Mental health isn’t a walk in the park. It’s so fucking hard. We expect that there’s a “one person solution” but there isn’t. We have to support the fuck out of the individual and we have to support the fuck out of their supporters and it’s not going to be convenient and it’s going to be loud and messy and awkward but abuse tactics only send us further into the bleakness.
I can say with certainty that I would be dangled in the air in tight, biting rope to be hit with a cattleprod multiple times before I would ever hurt a child but I will never be allowed to work with children because I did.
If money weren’t an issue, a lot of people would ditch sex work.
And I hate this line of argument because it ignores so much about the truth about trying to find and keep a job. Do you really think that the staff at the JREC would be electrocuting Autistic children as we speak if they didn’t need to pay their rent? It’s a fucked up question because someone who really delights in electroshocking a child needs to be very, very far away from them. If we keep acting like sex work is the worst and most emotionally damaging job there is, we’re standing by while abuse parades on past us masquerading as care and compassion. We’re standing by while our young people are financially coerced into fighting wars to pay for college (but the young women who escort are the used and discarded ones, right?). We’re standing by while all kinds of people are financially coerced into jobs that brutally hurt them and positively hurt others.
Everyone in this horror story has been dehumanized; the staff, the parents, and most of all the clients. All the money and the power moves up until it sits in the bank accounts of rich men who have no compassion or consideration for human pain and suffering, who are willing to take the shortcuts that fear and violation provide for behavior modification in place of the hundreds of hours of fierce compassion that go into each inch of progress. When I show up on a kinky porn set, I will probably be dealing with business bullshit behind the scenes but it will not look like this:
Employees came and went throughout the morning and into the afternoon. They attached two more electrodes, so Andre had five total: on both arms, both legs, and his torso. Following the usual protocol, they tested the batteries on his shock device; rotated his electrodes so they wouldn’t leave marks on his skin; offered him water. They studied his “behavior recording sheet” to figure out exactly what behaviors they were supposed to punish. And they documented each shock with the reason it was given: “Scream” or “Tense Up.”
Hour after hour went by and nobody knelt down next to Andre to try to calm him. Attention was considered a reward—and a student who’s exhibiting “targeted behaviors” is not supposed to receive any. When the staffers did speak to Andre, they were required to follow a script, like a case manager did at 1:25 p.m., when she pushed the button for shock eighteen, then said: “Andre, no full-body tense-ups.” If any of the workers thought these shocks were excessive, they kept it to themselves. They all knew that if they didn’t shock a student when they were supposed to, the phone in the classroom would ring and there would be a monitor on the line ordering them to press the button.
By midafternoon, the workers had administered so many shocks they were having trouble keeping track of them all. At 3:12 p.m., one worker said to another: “Martin, what is he at now?”
“I think 26.”
We cannot allow this to continue. Our sense of human horror has been mislaid.