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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Modified cattle prods and the media


News stories just don't appear — dropped by the news gods into a reporter's lap. Stories are created: structured, modeled, fashioned and polished . The best new stories have both a protagonist and an antagonist and they unfold, inverted pyramid style, to a satisfying climax. With the climax told, the conclusion can be cut wherever a page editor must in order to fit the story onto the page.

News folk will tell you their report, their story, is true. The reply to this is, "So?" True is not necessarily balanced. Nor is true necessarily compete.

Today the local paper, where I worked for more than three decades, ran a story reporting that the Province of Ontario has agreed to a $32.7 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by residents of two now closed institutions for people with developmental handicaps: the Southwestern Regional Centre near Cedar Springs and the Rideau Regional Centre in Smith Falls.

The article rekindles memories of a long forgotten story in reporting:

Southwestern Regional Centre made headlines in the 1980s when it was revealed cattle prods were used on some patients, which advocates termed a form of "torture."

Torture at Cedar Springs: Now there is a good news story and sitting right on the door step of The London Free Press. Cedar Springs is on the distant southwestern edge of the newspaper's circulation area. With an important bureau office in Chatham and thus a reporter stationed in the immediate area, the revelations of claimed mistreatment at the mental health facility was big news.

This is the kind of story that sells papers, but was it true? Yes, it was true. Modified cattle prods were being used on residents. Was the story complete? No, I don't believe so. I know for a fact that some staff at the Cedar Springs facility would say, "Yes. The story, as reported, was true." But others would say, "No," and argue the story, as reported, was incomplete. In the past, I've heard institute staff go so far as to call the news reports inflammatory and inaccurate.

I recall stories from that period that never made it into the paper. These stories did not mesh with the thrust of the cattle prod hell-hole stories. Let me relate a couple of the stories editors ignored.

Living in an institute like Cedar Springs was not life-enriching for many of those living there. At one point it was decided to hold a food adventure party. Foods that many of the occupants rarely, if ever, sampled would be served. Some of these foods, were kept off the menu for good reason. They posed a choking danger to those residents for whom even eating was a struggle. These residents missed out on the pleasure of enjoying many foods of various flavours, temperatures and textures. And because some residents were denied these foods, other residents on the floor were often also denied access.

For the party extra staff were assigned to monitor the residents and watch for any problems. The staff, trained to handle choking situations, found the party stressful but it was a delight for residents. The alert staff prevented residents from stuffing filling their mouths with food. Thanks to the staff's watchfulness, there were no choking incidents at the party.

Another story involved a young boy afflicted with Down syndrome. His parents had decided it would be best if their young son was institutionalized. They brought the boy to Cedar Springs for evaluation.

After running a number of tests on the child the parents were told that, as difficult as it would be, the best thing for their little boy would be to remain at home. The professionals at Cedar Springs determined that the little boy was actually quite bright. Certainly as bright as a healthy five or six year old child. This little boy was bright enough to learn from his surroundings. Put him in a facility with severely developmentally challenged individuals and the little boy would learn how to fit in at the institute. He would grow up to act like the severely developmentally challenged individuals with whom he lived.

Kept him at home, in a healthy, loving atmosphere, surrounded and supported by family, he would learn social graces. He would grow up to be a functioning individual. He would function at the level of a bright child but he would function. The little boy was not institutionalized. His parents took him home.

As for the stories about cattle prods and torture, I don't want to say too much as the closing chapter for that story is still to be written. The newspaper story reports that the announced deal still requires court approval.

I don't know all the stories and I am sure there are some horror stories. But I do know there is another side to this story. I was told that most of the workers authorized to deliver shocks were themselves shocked. It was felt that those delivering shocks should have a full understanding of the pain involved. I talked with one young woman who worked at the facility who told me she had been given a shock, a painful jolt, and she never wanted to be touched with a prod again. Never.

Yet, she delivered shocks. Why? The residents she touched with the modified cattle prod were injuring themselves by pounding their heads on the hard floor. The options for protecting these residents were to physically restrain them, to lock them away in essentially a fully padded cell, to drug them into an almost comatose state or to try and modify their behaviour through the controlled application of a short but painful jolt of electricity.

Despite the news reports of cattle prods and torture in the regional centre near Chatham, the centre had not gone rogue. A surgeon does not stab or assault a patient with a deadly weapon, despite the use of  sharp blades. Mental health professionals are not engaged in torture despite the use of modified cattle prods.

Matthew Israel, the inventor of the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (DEG) used at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, Massachusetts — and only at the JRC — defended his use of painful electrical jolts to control behaviour:

Some individuals who are developmentally disabled or psychiatrically challenged display severe behavior problems such as eye-gouging to the point of blindness, skin gouging to the point of fatal blood and bone infection, biting off the tips of one’s fingers, pulling out one’s own teeth, etc. These problems require rapid and effective treatment.

Boston Magazine in an article, The Shocking Truth, looked at the use of the DEG at the JRC in Massachusetts. The reporter wrote: "Spend enough time around the machine and it will test everything you know about right and wrong." In 2008, at the time the article was written, the writer wrote: "Some Massachusetts legislators who’ve filed bills this year to limit the use of the machine call it "barbaric" and the school "like Abu Ghraib"."

If you've got the time, read the Boston Magazine article by Paul Kix. The first four pages can be tough. You will believe you are reading about sanctioned torture and you might partially be right. But on page five you will encounter P. J. Biscardi.

At age three, P.J. was diagnosed with autism. One summer, while Peter [P.J.'s dad] drove the family to Cape Cod, P.J. grabbed his father’s hair and pulled it out, blood smearing the upholstery. Peter and his wife, Maureen, had to lock everything in their house in Burlington — drawers, file cabinets, anything that could be opened — so P.J., then maybe all of 10, wouldn’t destroy the place. Or kill himself. But it didn’t matter: P.J. was violent.

P.J. was violent, and P.J. was curious. One year, at a holiday meal with the extended family, P.J. sneaked into the bathroom and sipped Drano. Drano. Maureen had never yelled louder in her life. They rushed him to the hospital, where doctors announced, mercifully, that P.J. had only suffered chemical burns.

Another time, P.J. took one of Peter’s razor blades to his arms. "Hurt, hurt," he said, when Maureen saw the blood-soaked towel. P.J. was known to ram his body into the walls; you’ve never see a linebacker hit a wall with such force, Peter says. He tipped out dresser drawers, knocked over shelves of books. P.J. bit himself so much that a giant callus formed on the skin between his thumb and wrist, growing larger every time he drew fresh blood.

The Biscardis’ other children, an older sister and younger brother, never wanted their friends over. . . . The school district didn’t want P.J. The Biscardis couldn’t keep him at home. So they tried four treatment centers. At the last place, the drugs temporarily stunted P.J.’s growth. He was 12. Peter wasn’t comfortable with the level of medication, especially since the drugs didn’t seem to do much to keep the kid calm. The school’s doctor told Peter, "If you don’t increase the dose, we’re not going to keep him here."

Today, after three decades living at JRC, P. J. Biscardi's callus on his hand has long ago disappeared. After P.J. makes a visit to the family home, the house is in the same shape it was when he arrived. And no locked cabinets.

To be fair, DEG is not modified cattle prod therapy but only a cousin of the Ontario approach. In learning more about the history of what was done in Ontario, one will encounter the late O. Ivar Lovaas. This is the man often credited with being the father of cattle prod therapy.

Early in his career, Lovaas used modified cattle prods to deliver electric shocks to autistic children in an attempt to modify their behaviour. He later renounced the method and adopted the positive approaches in keeping with B.F. Skinner's theories on how to modify and reinforce behavior. Lovaas took advantage of food treats and activity rewards and ceased the application of painful punishment.

About 20 years after Lovaas distanced himself from his own modified cattle prod therapy, Anderson Cooper of CNN reported on a family who supported the jolting of their autistic son with 4500 volts. Cooper wrote about this on his blog: Parents seek shock treatment for son.

The CNN reporter told viewers that in 2006 the state of Illinois outlawed the use of electric shock treatment in group homes and community facilities. The parents of one child who could no longer be shocked sued the group home where their son lived. They hoped to force the home to bring back the modified cattle prod. Their son's life had deteriorated without the prod. The courts tossed the case out because the treatment was now illegal.

No matter where you stand on the electric shock treatment delivered in the closed Ontario centres, I believe you would have a difficult time proving the treatment was torture. You might be able to find examples of residents who were not helped by the therapy but then experts only claim success in about half the cases. And this, of course, is where it gets sticky. Shocking people who are not helped may very well injure them instead, leave them greatly distressed. I am not surprised that some former residents launched legal actions.

The big story here might NOT be the almost $33 million settlement. Nor is the big story the occasional use of modified cattle prods to modify behavior. The story might be that the Province of Ontario has closed about 16 costly facilities and yet is short of cash to assist families now forced to cope with mentally challenged sons and daughters.

I've read that each residential spot in an institute cost the government at least $100,000 a year and there were thousands and thousands of residents. As a society we seem to have shifted much of the burden of caring for these former residents from the province to the affected families. In many cases the province has foisted day to day responsibilities onto the mentally challenged themselves. Again, this isn't all bad, but it isn't all good either. Although some of the former residents have fared very poorly outside the centres, others have not only survived outside the centres but flourished. As I said, it is no big surprise that some former residents took legal action.

The practice of openly excluding the mentally challenged from society has ended, to be replaced all too often with the insidious act of quietly socially excluding this group. What some of these challenged individuals and their families face today is but another form of, forgive the word, torture.

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