Senators rely on FDA to ban devices


This story was published in partnership with The 19th, a non-profit, non-partisan newsroom that deals with gender, politics and politics.

Several senators are pushing to end the use of electric shock devices on people with disabilities, a tool that is now only used by one school in the United States, where most of the students are boys and girls. black and latino men.

At the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, some students at the school wear devices at all times, while staff members monitor them for violations. Students who engage in unwanted behavior may receive a painful shock. Students can also be four-point restrained and repeatedly shocked for transgressions ranging from self-harm to failing to pick up a jacket when told to do so.

School, which uses an extreme form of behavior modification as its primary teaching tool, presents itself as a last resort for the most difficult and dangerous cases. Many students are autistic or have a developmental disability, but others are also admitted with psychiatric diagnoses such as bipolar disorder. Studies show that black boys are often viewed as more dangerous, older, and less innocent than their white peers.

Legal battles over the use of these devices have been fought for decades. Historically, the devices have primarily been used on students with autism, but in recent years their use has spread to people with other social and emotional disabilities.

However, it looked like in March 2020 that the fight over the use of shock devices might finally be over. The FDA banned them, saying in a press release they caused “depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, pain, burns and tissue damage.”

But it was not. With the pandemic and ongoing legal battles, nothing at the Judge Rotenberg Center has changed. Additionally, in July 2021, a federal appeals court overturned the decision, saying the ban was outside the authority of the FDA. The use of punitive electric shock devices at the Judge Rotenberg Center continued without interruption.

In September, the FDA quietly filed an appeal. Now Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and a handful of other Democratic senators are publicly expressing their support. In a letter first shared with The 19th, Murphy praised the FDA and the Department of Justice for choosing to file another appeal.

“We appreciate your defense of the rule [banning electric shock devices] and ask you to continue to prioritize the protection of people with disabilities by putting an end to this dangerous practice, ”he wrote. Six other senators signed, including Senators Maggie Hassan and Bob Casey.

In an exclusive interview with The 19th, Murphy described the use of electric shocks as “something that belongs in the trash of history” and something that should not “be practiced in modern medicine”. He said he was considering legislation to address the problem.

“We may need to definitely weigh in and give the FDA the power to regulate [shock devices] or ban them outright, ”Murphy said.

Some parents of students at the Judge Rotenberg Center believe that these electric shock devices are the only way to keep their children safe and healthy. They tout painful electric shocks as an alternative to excessive psychiatric medication.

Children don’t necessarily agree. Jennifer Msumba, a former student, described the experience to CBS News as “like being underground in hell.” Given the choice between drugs and electric shocks, Msumba said, “I was one of those people who were all drugged up with so many drugs, and I would take this anytime rather than be shocked. , because I was not afraid. I was tired, but I was not afraid.

Advocates of the disability community are happy to see support from Congress. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is one of the advocacy groups against the use of electric shocks on people with disabilities.

“For the autistic community, this is not just a legal dispute over the authority of the FDA,” network executive director Julia Bascom told the 19th. “It’s a deeply personal argument as to whether there is a right to torture some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

Murphy said he doesn’t necessarily view electric shock devices as a disability issue, but as part of his work to ban and restrict the use of corporal punishment in general. “Those [shock] the devices are unique, but in their essence … [they’re] no different from other uses of corporal punishment, ”he said. In June, Murphy reintroduced legislation that would prohibit teachers and other school staff from physically hitting any student, for example. He also recently introduced legislation to divert federal funding from maintaining school resource officers and toward school mental health services.

While the letter has no legal impact, Murphy and his fellow signatories wanted to make it clear to the courts that the Senate and others are paying attention. “The FDA is not a political body. It is a scientific body. But they always pay attention to the priorities of Congress. … And it is important for many of us that we do our part to end these draconian practices, ”he said.

Disability advocates like Bascom are delighted with the letter, despite its lack of bite. “We are happy to see that there continues to be strong support to end the torture of people with disabilities by electric shock,” she told The 19th. “The disability community has been fighting to end this practice for decades, and we are closer than ever. “

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