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Elizabeth Rivera, a Bronx vocational counselor, thought her son was going to kill her. "He used to slap me and push me," Rivera says. "We lived on the 34th floor and I was afraid he would push me off the balcony."
Her son, Gabriel, is autistic and sometimes violent. After a series of placements at different special-ed schools and psychiatric hospitals, she found the one thing that could keep his behavior in check: an electric shock.
"It's an annoying thing, like getting pinched," she says, having tried it herself. "But he didn't like it and he stopped doing whatever he was doing."
Earlier this month, Rivera was one of about 25 parents to lobby the state legislature for the right to have her son, now 27, punished with two-second electrical shocks at the controversial Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts.
State lawmakers have proposed a bill that would cut funding to out-of-state facilities like JRC that use "aversives" like skin shocks, the use of noxious smells, pinching, and food deprivation. There are currently 1,400 New Yorkers at out-of-state residential facilities that could be affected.
Assemblywoman Joan Millman's office says the bill, which Millman is sponsoring, is meant to prevent abuses. However, Millman's chief of staff, Sam Cooper, added that they may create some exceptions after hearing from parents like Rivera whose children are exceptionally aggressive and hard to control. JRC lobbyist Gene DeSantis said the trip to Albany was successful in convincing other legislators to remove their names from the bill altogether.
The legislation follows a long battle that began last summer, when the New York State Board of Regents enacted an emergency ban on aversives for most students. (Some exceptions were made for the most violent or self-injurious children.) The ban was extended several times and, on January 9, the Board ruled that all forms of aversives would be prohibited without exception beginning in 2009. The school is challenging the Board of Regents' decision in federal district court. JRC attorney Mike Flammia says he expects that the case will be heard later this year.
Throughout the process, JRC parents have actually been fighting for the shock treatment, arguing that skin shocks are the only effective way to curb their children's violent and self-mutilating behavior.
Today, after 12 years at JRC and 11 recorded skin shocks to her son, Rivera says he's able to control himself better and even has a paying job cleaning the school's vans in the summer. The alternative, she says, would be to warehouse him in a psych ward, drugged and "wasting away."
Linda Doherty, another parent who lobbied in Albany, says electric shocks are the only thing able to stop her severely autistic son from injuring himself. "When he was 8 years old, he started to bite himself from his shoulders to his elbows. He would just rip at himself. His arms would get infected and he built up a resistance to antibiotics." The shocks, she said, made him stop. "I feel that I am fighting to save my son."
It's not surprising, however, that some of JRC's clients aren't so keen on being shocked.
On April 14, just as parents were preparing to lobby, one JRC student escaped through a bathroom window. Today, the student, 19-year-old Shante Evelyn, is still missing. Police consider her a runaway and believe she is with friends somewhere in New Jersey or New York.
The lobbying parents, most of whom have struggled through scares of their own children gone missing, being injured, and having bad reactions to psychotropic drugs, aren't surprised by the news.
"That would happen anywhere," says Rivera. "If there is no way to hold them down, they will run away."