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Letter in support of appealing Bristol County Probate Court's decision on aversive interventions

Dear Secretary Sudders:

I’m writing to strongly urge that the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) appeal the Bristol County Probate Court’s recent decision in Judge Rotenberg Center, Inc. v. Commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services before tomorrow’s deadline.  I make this request as an attorney and advocate who has spent the past ten years advocating against abuse and neglect of people with disabilities in institutional settings, and as a member of the autistic community, which has been one of the populations most targeted by the use of aversive interventions at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC).  Furthermore, as a Massachusetts resident, I firmly believe that the commonwealth should refuse to continue being complicit in the facility’s longstanding and ongoing human rights abuses.

For the past forty years, government agencies have been aware of how JRC’s practices have harmed its residents.  As far back as 1979, the New York State Education Department and the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities described the effects that JRC’s behavior modification program had on its students as "the singular most depressing experience that team members have had in numerous visitations to human service programs."[1]  DDS itself later found its methods to be “inhumane beyond all reason” in its findings on the death of Linda Cornelison, a JRC resident who staff had subjected to over 70 aversive interventions for her responses to the pain she suffered from a stomach ulcer on the day she died.[2]  Most recently, a panel of experts voted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should ban JRC’s contingent electric shock devices based on its determination that they pose a substantial and unreasonable risk of illness or injury.[3]

Despite all this, the consent decree allowing JRC to use aversive interventions by court order has enabled the program to continue operating with impunity for these and numerous other abuses, and to even punish DDS for exercising its licensing authority to protect service recipients.[4]  The consent decree and resulting litigation has also had a chilling effect on other state licensing agencies, who have limited themselves to recommending ineffectual piecemeal reforms to address abuses that are a direct result of a longstanding culture of coercion and punishment.[5]

If DDS were to continue to recognize the settlement agreement as valid, it would allow JRC to indefinitely remain above the law that applies to every other facility, and every other caregiver, in Massachusetts.  Worse, it would send a clear message to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that they are not worth protecting as long as their abusers can frame their actions as treatment.  The most significant human cost, however, would be to the disabled adults who have been subjected to these methods for years if not decades, and who JRC’s own research has admitted will likely never be free from them.[6]

All of this makes it particularly shameful that Massachusetts is the last place in the country whose laws explicitly condone these forms of abuse, and essential that DDS continue its work to vindicate the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Therefore, I hope that you will appeal the Bristol County Probate Court’s order by tomorrow’s deadline.  Thank you very much for your time and concern.



Shain M. Neumeier, Esq.



Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey

Commissioner Jane Ryder, Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services


[1] Barbara Hawes, N.Y. Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, Behavior Research Institute, Providence, Rhode Island 25 (1979), available at https://autistichoya.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/1979_nysomrdd_investigation.pdf.

[2] Donna Cabral, Mass. Dept. of Mental Retardation, Investigation Report 25 (1995), available at https://autistichoya.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/mass_dmr_lc_investigation.pdf.

[3] See generally, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Summary of the Neurological Devices Panel Meeting: April 24, 2014 (2014), available at https://autistichoya.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/24-hour-meeting-summary-aversive-conditioning-final.pdf [hereinafter “Summary”]; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Neurological Devices Panel (2014), available at https://autistichoya.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/fda-neuro04-24-14-final.pdf.

[4] See generally Judge Rotenberg Educational Ctr., Inc. v. Comm’r. of the Dep’t of Mental Retardation, 420 Mass. 430 (1997).

[5] See, e.g., Mass. Dept. of Early Education and Care, Investigation Report (2007); Isaac Borenstein, Report by Monitor Judge Isaac Borenstein (Ret.) for the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) 112-127 (2013) (response staff shocking students on a prank caller's order, followed by destruction of evidence by facility management, focused on staff training, supervision and communication policies).  See also Sean Phillip Cotter, The Patriot Ledger, State finds abuse, seeks changes at Judge Rotenberg Center (22 Jun. 2017), http://www.patriotledger.com/news/20170622/state-finds-abuse-seeks-changes-at-judge-rotenberg-center (last visited 17 Jul. 2018) (DPPC makes nonbinding recommendations for staff training and support after two staff members' multiple deliberate assaults on resident over one-year period).

[6] See Matthew Israel et al., Treatment of Aggression with Behavioral Programming that Includes Supplementary Contingent Skin-Shock, 1 Behavior Analyst Online 157 (2008).