Bill targeting facility that uses ‘aversion therapy’ on tap in Senate

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ALBANY — Legislation that would ban New York’s use of an out-of-state behavioral facility that uses a controversial form of treatment known as “aversion therapy” passed a key state Senate committee this week.

The bill, which is poised to be voted on by the full Senate, targets the programming at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center outside Boston. The center has faced scrutiny for its use of electric stimulation devices (ESDs), which aim to deter injurious behavior by delivering electric shocks to patients. The U.S. food and Drug Administration banned the therapy in 2020 but the Rotenberg center successfully appealed the ban in court. 

The bill has sparked a fierce debate among lawmakers and some parents who say their children have benefited from the unique programs at the residential facility in Canton, Mass. Those parents also have said their children are afflicted with neurological disorders that trigger aggressive and self-harming behavior that resulted in New York facilities declining to care for them.

“As chair of the Disabilities Committee, I have a sacred responsibility to stand up for vulnerable and often voiceless New Yorkers and ensure they are getting the care and services they need to live fulfilling and comfortable lives,” state Sen. John Mannion said in a statement. “Fifty years after Willowbrook, I believe it is appropriate for New York to join the 40 other states that have banned electro-shock.”

Electric shock therapy and other aversive conditioning, which involves using pain or discomfort to alter a person’s behavior, was banned in New York in 2005. Mannion was referring to the Willowbrook State School, a state-run institution on Staten Island. Revelations of unsanitary and dangerous conditions there prompted New York to deinstitutionalize its treatment programs for individuals with neurological conditions.

But parents of children treated at the Massachusetts facility visited the Capitol this week to pressure lawmakers against supporting the legislation. Many say their children have not been subjected to electric-shock therapy — and never will be — but could lose access to the programs there because New York is expected to discontinue funding for treatment at the facility if the legislation becomes law.

Last year, the Rotenberg Educational Center had 63 adults in its program who were from New York, including 58 whose treatment was funded by OPWDD. Seven of those individuals had been there for more than 20 years, and 32 had been there for between five and 20 years. The center also was providing services to 82 school-aged students from New York, whose treatment is paid for by their New York school districts or social services.

The bill states that it would ban “aversive conditioning which includes any procedure which causes obvious signs of physical pain, including but not limited to hitting, pinching and electric shock; prohibits the use of any procedure or punishment which denies a vulnerable person reasonable sleep, shelter, bedding, bathroom facilities and any other aspect expected of a humane existence.”

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Jabari Brisport, D-Brooklyn, said he named the legislation — “Andre’s Law” — for Andre McCollins, who was hospitalized in 2002 after being restrained on a table and shocked 31 times over a period of roughly seven hours at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center.

“I fail to see how if a practice is discontinued in New York, why we would continue to fund an institution that continues to do the practice whether that is electro-shock therapy or aversive conditioning or anything else that is no longer a practice allowed by the state of New York,” Brisport said, adding that his conversations with Cheryl Collins, the mother of Andre Collins, have been a significant factor in his push for the legislation.

The senator acknowledged that the bill targets New York’s dealings with the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, which he has not visited. “To my knowledge, it’s the only school in the entire country that does that,” he added.

The Massachusetts facility routinely takes in residents who are rejected by treatment facilities and educational programs in other states. Supporters of the center note that it changed its policies and instituted safeguards after the McCollins incident, and that the use of electro-shock therapy at the facility is extremely rare and subject to court authorization and an evaluation of the client by an independent mental health expert.

According to the center, aversive conditioning treatment is used in only the most severe cases when the person is at-risk of harming themselves, according to the center. The facility is regularly inspected by two New York agencies: the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.

A related bill remains stalled in the Legislature that would ensure individuals treated at out-of-state treatment centers like the Judge Rotenberg Education Center be permanently entitled to due-process rights before being ordered to move into a New York facility.

Last year, the state abandoned its efforts to discontinue funding for some New York residents receiving educational and treatment programming in other states. OPWDD had ordered a handful of families to choose between moving their disabled adult children to a remote treatment center in the Adirondacks or face the loss of state funding for their child’s care at out-of-state treatment centers. The office reversed course days after a Times Union story was published highlighting the situation.

The relocation issue centers on the due-process rights of families under a 2014 law that gave them more say in their children’s treatment options once the child turns 21. State lawmakers had said they believed the relocation effort was being driven by an apparent cost-saving measure implemented by the administration of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to exploit a loophole that would prevent families from invoking those rights.


Parents of children who are autistic and being treated at the facility in Canton, Mass., had said they received the relocation letters just days or weeks before their due-process rights would have been triggered as their children turned 21.

Joseph Atkinson, who had received a notification from OPWDD a year ago that his 21-year-old son would need to move to the state’s Sunmount facility in Tupper Lake or risk losing his funding at JRC, told the Times Union last year that his son Joseph had never been treated with shock therapy “and he never will be.”

He and his wife Michelle had said the center’s treatment programs helped their son cope with his aggressive outbursts — which have included harming them and himself — and enabled him to regularly complete daily tasks, including making meals or doing chores, that had once been out of reach. He has also been removed from many of the behavioral medications he was once prescribed and lost weight as his lifestyle has become more healthy, they said.

“We’d love for him to be back in New York,” Joseph Atkinson said. “We would love to have him (here) on Long Island. … The point is that no one’s accepted him (in New York) because of his aggression. The homes have an option not to accept him because they would incur additional costs.”

Cohoes Assemblyman John McDonald and several other lawmakers, including Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, who chairs the Assembly’s Children and Families Committee, and Assemblyman Thomas J. Abinanti, who chairs the Committee on People with Disabilities, have pushed legislation to close the due-process loophole. They contend it would help OPWDD make it viable for New York providers to more widely offer the services for high-needs individuals that many families said they can only access in other states.

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