Shocking…isn’t It?

©Tracy J. Thomas, 2010.

Photos: Inside Preston Castle, a former Reformatory for incorrigible young men, Ione, CA.

I came across an article shared by my friend Sara Gelser on Facebook this morning.  Sara is an Oregon State Representative, Chair of the House Education Committee, founding member of the Senior and Disability Caucus, and was recently appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on Disability which was confirmed by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate.  Sara is not just another politician.  She is also mother to Sam.  Both Sam and my son Justin have FG Syndrome, an obscure genetic syndrome that presents itself through a variety of physical and mental anomalies.  For this very reason, we both have a deep interest in the rights of those with special needs.

©Tracy J. Thomas, 2010.

The title of the article Sara posted caught my attention immediately, “UN Calls Shock Treatment at Mass. School Torture”.  Shock treatment in America?!  Hadn’t that archaic, inhumane treatment been eradicated a long time ago right alongside the horrific frontal lobotomy and hypothermia inducing ice baths?  I mean, come on now.  The field of Psychology with its Cognitive Behavior Therapy moved out of the dark ages eons ago.  Or so I thought.  I began reading the article thinking there must be some mistake here.  But no mistake.  It seems the Judge Rotenberg Center for special needs children utilizes the “skin shock treatment” for about half of its 250 students.  When they exhibit “undesirable behavior” they get “hooked up to a special machine and administered an electric shock.”  Really.

Being a parent of any child is a challenging task.  Add to that a child who has special needs and severe emotional and behavioral issues and the task at times seems insurmountable.  I empathize deeply with the parents of said children.  I really do out of personal experience.   Granted, the majority of individuals hooked up to this wonder machine are extreme behavioral cases who have been known to inflict great harm upon themselves.  However, to me, making the decision to agree to such extreme measures smells of Chinese water torture, dark hidden dungeons with dangling chains and a whole pack of Pavlov’s snarling, drooling dogs at one’s feet.

Even the doctor behind the administration of this “therapy” admits the shocking is not a painless affair.  “And if it didn’t hurt it wouldn’t be effective,” said Israel. “It has to hurt enough so that the student wants to avoid showing that behavior again.”  I don’t know about you, but if I were being abused over and over again, being shocked up to 40 times a week, I also would do anything to make that pain go away.

©Tracy J. Thomas, 2010.

This type of treatment would be considered highly unethical and outrage would rule the day if it were being utilized on our prisoners against their will.  But the victims here are children people!  And no one is asking their permission.  This doctor presents it as a viable last resort to vulnerable parents who are at their wit’s end and a judge actually makes a ruling that gives them permission to proceed.  This same  judge would never agree to such treatment of terrorist prisoner’s at Guantanamo Bay, understanding the international outrage that would follow.

There is an unfortunate undercurrent at work here that has existed since the day institutions were created to house those less fortunate than ourselves.  That undercurrent tends quite often to view people with severe disabilities as something less than human; something akin to dogs who require shock collars to correct unwanted behaviors.

©Tracy J. Thomas, 2010.

There are proven alternative and humane therapies that exist in the world of psychology that work to redirect these unwanted behaviors, no matter the severity.  So why choose to send your child to a school that utilizes an extremely controversial and outdated method of behavioral therapy?  Perhaps it is due to Dr. Israel’s ability to convince even the most critical.  I mean hey, he was able to convince a judge.  Just remember this, as your child winces in pain every time the staff pushes a button that sends the shock to correct that “unwanted behavior”,  that this doctor’s professional pockets are being well-padded with a portion of the $200,000 per student per year price tag that is financing this abuse.

About tracyth76

I am a professional photographer, obsessed iPhoneographer, freelance writer and website designer located in Northern, California. View all posts by tracyth76

9 responses to “Shocking…isn’t It?

  • Madge

    As I have said on facebook I have never had to deal with this on a personal level but I have friends who have and it is beyond comprehension. I think they can sometimes get fooled into therapies because they are so desperate for some type of relief for their child as well as themselves. It leads to places like this. They have already said I can’t handle this in my own home so I think once they commit to care somewhere else they can be convinced it is in the child’s best interest. I have no idea what I would do if placed in this position for an EXTREME case but I would like to believe that everyone including me would have tried EVERY other modality before something like this is tried. I know for sure I would exhaust everything in my power to help my child. Not sure if I would go this far. I have heard that there is some new type of electric shock for severe, severe depression and it has been shown effective in some cases. I know two people who have tried and they were short of suicide so it was the only thing left. I believe it helped. Thanks Tracy for putting this article and your views in front of me.

    • tracyth76


      Yes, it is a proven effective treatment for severe depression, but we have to remember these are consenting adults who are agreeing to take this measure for themselves. In the school in Mass. these are children…

  • susan bonin

    After working as a Psych Tech @ Napa St Hospital for 5 years, I know that in this state it is very, very difficult to get an ok for ‘shock treatment’. It takes court approval. The Dr. has to justify why the patient needs it. It takes months. It was at that time, before the current medications were released, a affective treatment for severe depression. The patient begged for it, so they could ‘feel normal’. Then the Dr’s order could only be approved for one treatment a month, for 3 months. Then back to court to justify again and prove the improvement. During all this time different meds and therapy were being tried. We were all horrified at the order, then amazed at the results.
    Yes at one time this treatment was very over used,even used as punishment, but with todays knowledge and regulations, I can not believe this could happen. We were taught the only diagnosis this is approved for is sever depression. It sounds like they use it for retaining as in Pavlov’s dogs.

    • tracyth76


      Yes, I agree it can be a valid therapy for a consenting adult who asks for it and it is highly regulated and only used on an occasional basis. The unfortunate thing with the Mass. school is #1 these are kids who have no say in the matter and #2 the amount of times they are being exposed to the shock treatment (up to 40 times a week) is in my opinion very wrong…and yes, it is very close to retraining based on Pavlov’s experiments with dogs.

  • Valerie

    Certainly this is a difficult decision for any parent. But, why should a child be denied treatment merely because they are not a consenting adult? I can understand any parent wanting to try this therapy as a “last resort”. As parents we all make decisions on behalf of our children…some good, some not so good. This is extreme but no parent should judge another until they have been faced with the situation. Our right to protect someone else’s child is superceded by the parent’s right to make informed choices. If the treatment referenced above is extreme then steps should be taken through appropriate medical channels to change the modality.

    • tracyth76

      It wouldn’t be a denial of treatment but a redirection towards a more humane treatment for the child and there are many in existence. We are talking here about one state and one school with only 250 students where this controversial “therapy” is being used. There are many more children throughout the country who have the same level of severity and are being treated successfully by doctors who do not “shock” them. And yes, I agree, the modality should be addressed and changed as it once was when they did away with shock therapy and lobotomy in institutions. I have little doubt that will happen as the United Nations have now stepped in and are questioning the use of this particular technique at this school.

  • Valerie

    Thank you for the clarification. Based on the fact that it is only one school and there are other therapies that are successful this seems to be out of line with acceptable medical practices. Glad to hear that the UN is questioning. What about the medical profession? I know they don’t like to question “their own”.

  • Sara Gelser

    Tracy, What remarkable photos. I am in awe of the way you see the world through your camera lens, an the story you are able to tell with your photos. Simply remarkable.

    And such a depressing story. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece about it- and being so kind to me in the process!!

    I hope it isn’t too long before we can all get together again!


    • tracyth76

      Thank you Sara…you most definitely deserve kindness, you are an amazing woman accomplishing amazing things from the goodness and passion within your heart.

      I also hope it is not too long before we can all get together again. It would be great to see you!


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