For those who might have seen the movie or read the book “A Clockwork Orange”, the principle underlying the Rotenberg Center is almost exactly the same as that which was behind fictional Alexander DeLarge’s treatment. The only difference is that Alex was a violent criminal who voluntarily chose to undergo the Ludovico Technique in order to secure an early release from prison, while most, if not all, of the children at the Rotenberg Center have been forced into the treatment by their parents or other guardians. Once admitted to the center, it’s as if these kids lose all their rights to be treated as human beings and disappear into a legal black hole.
The Rotenberg Center has been through several incarnations and has made the news periodically throughout the thirty years or so that it has been doing its thing. It used to be called the Behavior Research Institute, which was a moniker that, I think, more accurately reflected the status of its inmates (or, as the JRC itself would have us say, its “patients”) as unwilling guinea pigs in a Behaviorist Laboratory. One time was the demise of resident Vincent Milletich by asphyxiation in 1987; another time was the awful death of Linda Cornelison in 1990. Much more recently the Rotenberg center made the news when two students were accidentally tortured with dozens of electric shocks because a prank caller, claiming to be an authority figure at the center, instructed staff to do so. I’ve met a couple of people who worked at the center at one time- the qualifications for employment appear to be little more than a willingness to follow orders and a less-than-robust conscience. It pays better than McDonald’s, from what I hear.
The center’s director, Matthew Israel, did not seem particularly interested in children, autism, or disabilities when he started a “utopian commune” in Arlington in 1967. But perhaps he found that children are easier to experiment on than adults, and the disabled children easiest of all. The biographical sketch that emerges from the Boston Magazine article suggests a cross between Dr. Marvin Candle from “Lost” and the self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh. Today earning more than $300,000 a year, Israel is apparently a friend and former classmate of Michael Dukakis, which was undoubtedly a beneficial arrangement when a variety of coalitions, activists, and a majority of state legislators were calling for the center’s closure back in the 1980’s.
In any event, my initial reaction to the Judge Rotenberg Center was a mixture of disgust and outrage. Despite hearing that some parents and former guests praise its methods and the results they have achieved, my initial appraisal has been unchanged. This operation has been going for thirty years, and despite the scandals and controversies there is apparently nothing in the peer-reviewed academic journals that validates its seemingly cruel and unusual tactics. Shouldn’t Dr. Israel bear the burden of proof that this stuff does more good than harm? State Representative Jeffery Sanchez’s nephew has been “treated” by the Center since he was a teenager- he is 32 now and far from cured. How is Sanchez’ case really an argument for the center’s effectiveness?
I remain horrified that this strange purgatory for the disabled exists in the United States at all, and positively perplexed that it could exist in Massachusetts, where our supposedly liberal sympathies and high level of education cause many of us to reject even the usage of minor forms of corporal punishment. Hopefully the Federal government will be able to do what Massachusetts officials have failed to accomplish, and shut down Dr. Israel’s bizarre experiment in torture as therapy.