For much of his young life Antwone Nicholson has been uncontrollable. Abused as a toddler, he threw chairs at classmates, set fires and got into frequent fights. His adoptive mother, Evelyn Nicholson, tried everything to curb his behavior, but neither the five psychiatric treatment centers he went to since he was 13 nor psychotropic drugs helped the Freeport, N.Y., teen much. Then, in November 2003, Antwone was sent to a place of last resort, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, a residential facility with a proven track record—and a radical method of treatment.
The center said Antwone’s behavior did improve—but only after staffers at the Canton, Mass., facility began delivering painful jolts of electricity via wires attached to his arms and legs. Known as “aversive therapy,” the technique is so controversial that JRC is the only place in the country to practice it—and even then not without a court order and parental consent. Antwone was fitted with a fanny pack containing a remote-controlled device called a Graduated Electronic Decelerator and low-wattage electrodes held in place with Velcro straps. If he disobeyed orders, became belligerent—or even used bad language—staffers could give him a two-second zap to the skin that’s been compared to a bee sting. (It’s far less damaging than the electroshocks made famous in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) Antwone’s mom initially approved the treatment, but after increasingly mournful phone calls from Antwone—”He said, ‘Momma, I don’t believe you love me anymore because you’re not trying to get me out of here. Am I not your son?'”—she stopped it in February and is removing him from the center. JRC says Antwone, 17, was shocked 79 times, about once a week—which is average.
Now Nicholson’s lawyer, Kenneth Mollins, has begun legal action to block the New York State Education Department from sending children to JRC, claiming that shock treatment is abusive and goes against state education policy. He is also planning to bring a suit for monetary damages against Antwone’s local school district. Yet other parents who have sent their children to the Rotenberg center consider the shock therapy a lifesaver. Lunda Payne of New York City says it gave her hope for her daughter Frances, 17, who is bipolar and once carved the word “death” into her arm with a knife. With GED treatment, those behaviors have disappeared. “If this is what keeps her from hurting herself or someone else, I’m all for it,” Payne says.
The therapy is just part of JRC’s complex approach to treating children with severe behavioral problems. The facility, founded in 1971, is a highly stimulating environment of kaleidoscopic designs and brilliant colors. Its 250 patients, ages 6 to 45, many with multiple disorders, are weaned from their medications and initially managed through rewards for positive behavior like trips to the school arcade or store. If that fails—and it does for about half the patients—the center begins shock treatment. JRC’s founder, psychologist Matthew Israel, says the treatment lessens negative behavior 100 percent of the time. Then “you can teach the student new behaviors that weren’t possible before because they weren’t cooperating,” he says.
Still, JRC comes under regular attack. There is an annual motion in the Massachusetts legislature to shut the center down, and critics call the treatment barbaric. Psychologist Edward Carr of Stony Brook University says there is a good reason JRC is the only facility practicing shock therapy: It doesn’t work. “The problem with punishing people is it doesn’t lead you to discover the factors driving the problem behavior,” he says. “How come all the other [centers] in the country are able to manage without it?”
But, according to Israel, “the real child abuse are those programs that warehouse and fill students with psychotropic drugs that have no real effect except to make the student fall into a kind of stupor.” Still, his center could be in jeopardy. As a result of the controversy, New Jersey’s Division of Developmental Disabilities has decided not to send any more patients there. New York, which currently has about 170 patients at JRC (at a cost of more than $214,000 per patient), is reviewing the matter. Left in the lurch for now is Antwone. He remains at JRC until Evelyn, 58, can find him a new facility, preferably one closer to her home. She’s certain Antwone will thrive at another center, and so is he. “He told me, ‘Just get me out of here and get me in another place. I can be better in another place.'”