Monday, January 14, 2008

We’re Better Than This: Aversive "Therapy"

When Jennifer Gonnerman wrote an article for Mother Jones magazine titled, School of Shock, she exposed the tip of very ugly “therapy” iceberg.

Aversive therapy is punishment, designed supposedly, to change a disabled child’s behavior. The rational for using it is to apply an aversive consequence immediately following unwanted behavior. Proponents insist, with this “conditioning” ensures the child will not repeat the behavior in the future.

The article takes on the Judge Rothenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts; a residential school that focused on providing special educational services with a brutal aversive behavior modification program at its core. Their use of aversives includes the use of electric shock treatments. Over half of the 234 children at the school carry 10-pound electric shock backpacks every day, all day, and all night. Children as young as ten years old receive this treatment.

But, the issue of aversive behavior treatments does not start and end at the Rothenberg School. Aversive therapy is happening throughout the country with differing degrees of severity. In classrooms all over the US, children face being locked in closets, thrown to the floor, sat upon or restrained, sprayed in the face with any number of liquids and worse.

The National Council on Disability (NCD) makes recommendations to the President and Congress on issues facing Americans with disabilities. The NCD published Improving the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Making Schools Work for All of America's Children, in May 1995. That’s almost 12 years ago and still the abuse continues. Here is what they wrote to the President.

The current system has the potential to allow parents to request and receive program methods that are unproven, experimental in nature, or dangerous or harmful to the physical or psychological health of their child… Students with severe behavioral disabilities are not criminals, and yet present law allows them to be subjected to procedures, which cannot be used on the most hardened criminals, or, in some cases, even on animals.

…In any other context, the use of these procedures would be considered child (or dependent) abuse or neglect. They should not be viewed as "treatment" just because a student has a disability… the United States could be cited for human rights violations against people with disabilities under its own Country Reports on Human Rights published annually by the Department of State. From:

We Are Better Than That

John Kiriakou is a former CIA officer. He captured and interrogated Abu Zubaydah, a member of al Qaeda. Kiriakou recently spoke to Brian Ross, at ABC News about his interrogation of Zubaydah. He admitted that the CIA, waterboarded the prisoner.

Ross: What happened as a result of that?

Kiriakou: He resisted [for] probably 30, 35 seconds....And a short time afterwards, in the next day or so, he told his interrogator that Allah had visit him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate because his cooperation would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured. And, from that day on he answered every question just like I'm sitting here speaking to you.

Ross: So in your view the water boarding broke him.

Kiriakou: I think it did, yes.

Ross: And did it make a difference in terms of —

Kiriakou: It did. The threat information that he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.

Even though the torture worked, Kiriakou now believes it was wrong. Why? "Because we're Americans, and we're better than that." Kiriakou concludes.

Ends Do Not Justify Means

Waterboarding, like electric shock is aversive therapy. It is punishment for not talking. And, it apparently works. One could argue that waterboarding is more torturous that electric shock aversive therapy, but that is not the point.

The point is we are talking about our country’s CHILDREN. Just because it works doesn't mean it should be a practice.We have a social contract with our children… to raise them up humanely, give them life experiences so they can become good citizens, educate them, treat them fairly, and help them into adulthood.

Punishing a child into submission, because they have a disability, should be no part of our social contract. We should be better than that.

Abuse in the name of behavior modification is still abuse. If educational leaders have so tainted our system and lost site of its commitment to our children, then it is time for, not reform, but revolution. Close those schools and throw the abusers in jail.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Police: Suspect May Have Killed 1 Child

By BRIAN SKOLOFF – Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A woman accused of adopting 11 disabled children for money and abusing them may have killed one child and disposed of the body, a detective said Thursday.

Judith Leekin, 62, was arrested in July and has pleaded not guilty to the multiple charges against her, including aggravated child abuse and aggravated abuse of disabled adults.

Nine of her adoptees — now ages 15 to 27 — are in Florida state custody, and another, now 19 years old, is on his own in the state. But authorities say they haven't been able to locate the 11th child, Shane Graham, who would also be 19.

Authorities say that after exhausting all their leads trying to find him, turning to the public for help is the last step before considering a murder charge.

"There's been no trace of this kid anywhere," said Detective Stuart Klearman of the Port St. Lucie police. "But the money was still flowing to her. She falsified documents to keep it flowing. What other option do we have other than he is deceased?"

Graham was last seen with Leekin in 1999 or 2000. The other adopted children have said Leekin told them he died.

The boy had suffered from Down syndrome, autism and sickle cell anemia, among other serious afflictions, Klearman said.

"He couldn't feed himself, bathe himself, do anything for himself," Klearman said. "He couldn't walk or speak. ... On his own, he could not survive."

Leekin has denied the abuse allegations, and a lawyer who previously represented her has said Leekin loved and nurtured the children she adopted. A telephone message left for her new attorney was not returned Thursday. Leekin remains in jail on more than $4 million bail.

Authorities say she adopted 11 disabled children in New York City over several years before moving to Florida in 1998. She used four aliases to adopt from different agencies and created fake report cards to show the children's progress, even though they were not attending school, according to court records and officials.

New York City records show she received more than $1.2 million in subsidies for the disabled children she had adopted.

Authorities say Leekin kept the children like prisoners in her Port St. Lucie home. They say the children were often handcuffed, beaten, starved and locked in a room, hidden from visitors and deprived of medical and dental care.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cincinnati Woman Charged with Disabled Son's Murder

Update Jan 4, 2008, from the Cincinnati Enquirer

MOUNT WASHINGTON – Cynthia A. Standifer, 55, the mother of Rasheed Michael Standifer, 25, who was developmentally disabled, was charged Thursday with murder in his death.

Michael Standifer was found dead inside his mother’s Wayside Court home Wednesday, and Cynthia Standifer was taken to University Hospital suffering an apparent overdose.

Cincinnati Police said Thursday their investigation revealed the mother caused her son’s death then attempted suicide.

Court records showed Cynthia Standifer admitted her role to homicide investigators.

Michael Standifer’s cause of death will be determined pending the results of an autopsy by the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office.

Police said little else on Thursday about their investigation, but neighbors spoke fondly of the man they knew as Michael.

“Everyone knew him as Michael,” said neighbor Bill Huber. “He would always bark out his first name real forcefully.”

Huber believed Standifer was visiting his mother for the holidays, which he did frequently.

“He lived in a group home,” Huber said. “His caregiver from the home found Michael and his mom and called police.”

Cynthia Standifer lived in her Mount Washington home since 2001. She regularly participated in neighborhood block parties. So did her son.

“Never heard them fight,” said neighbor Nicholas Sanderfer. “Never saw them argue. They always got along real well.”

Huber fondly remembered those block parties and the times in the summer when “Michael came over to my house and sat on the porch. He would talk with me and my wife,” Huber added.

“And he would sing. He loved to sing.”

And play basketball.

“He’d play with the neighborhood kids at the hoop in front of his house,” said Nicholas Sanderfer’s wife, Laura.

She described Michael as “very quiet. He was obviously mentally challenged. But he got along great with all the kids on the street. He was like a child in a man’s body.”

Jim Myres coached Standifer when he played for the Newtown Kickers of the Cincinnati TOP (The Outreach Program) Soccer league.

“Michael had a beautiful voice,” Myres said. “He sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ for one of our soccer tournaments.”

Ten years later, Myres remained struck by the quality of Standifer’s voice.

“A lot of these kids (sic) think they can sing,” he said. “But he really could.”

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Reassigning Meaning

Change your language and you change your thoughts. ~Karl Albrecht

My husband and I took on a few home organizational projects last week. One was to re-organize our bookcases by topic.

When we finished I looked over and saw the section dedicated to the disability civil rights movement… essays, poetry, fiction, biographies, and textbooks. It was reassuring to see them all together. Their authors guide and direct my thinking about a movement that has so graciously embraced me, provided a focus to my thoughts and actions, and given me a strong sense of identity and community. They have truly helped me define who I am.

I pulled Simi Linton’s, Claming Disability, from the shelf and began to re-read it. It is a scholarly book, sometimes difficult to read, in particular for a slow reader like me; especially if it is not assigned reading. However, it is so worth wading in to. From the first page of the first chapter, Reassigning Meaning, it grabbed me.

Someone Else’s Names Will Always Hurt Me

All words have meaning; and who chooses the words we speak have meaning too. All oppressed people have lost, through some sort of domination or conquest, the ability to define themselves. The dominant society defines the oppressed, not only as a group, but as individuals members too; and those words stick. We only need to look to other liberation movements for examples.

  • In the 1960s, the Black Power movement was a political movement. It expressed a new radical consciousness among “Negroes” in the US. Young activists rejected “the man’s” terms. They choose to redefine themselves and their movement on their own terms, taking control of the language.
  • Native people in the US have also followed this path. In my home state, Native Americans fought a decades long battle about Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois mascot. Dominant culture called it a “revered symbol;” Native people called it racist. Finally, he is gone; but the fight for control of the language (and images) continues… As I write this, the Mummers Parade, in Philadelphia, is on TV in the background. I looked up and saw a very Anglo looking “Indian Chief” stereotypically strutting down the street to an old rock and roll song.
  • “Queer theory” is a field of Gender Studies in academic institutions; it has turned the definition of “queer”, on its ear.

Linton argues it is our job, as disability academics and civil rights advocates to wrestle the words used to define disabled people and claim them and their definitions, as ours alone to define and determine.

Linton examined the specific word, “disability.” The medical definition regards us as weak on several levels. It means less than. It creates a “complex web of social ideals, institutional structures, and governmental policies that dictate our lives." It allows society to determine our value, and position in society.

Conversely, when we claim the word “disability” and redefine our struggle in socio-economic, political, and environmental terms, we claim our strength and our individual and group identities. We say… we are disabled by our inability to access the rights and benefits granted to other members of this society, not by a physical, mental, or intellectual capacity society may or may not perceive.

There are numerous examples of advocates who are fight this war of words:

  • Jacqui at Terrible Palsy recently blogged about the word, suffering in her recent blog, Words, where she uses a photo essay to debunk the myth.
  • Penny Richards at Disability Studies recently took on ableist language, in her piece, A New Vocabulary.
  • Take Kay Olson’s blog, The Gimp Parade; the name itself is a struggle for control of the language. As is Ms. Crip Chick's blog... their content aptly amplifies their fight.
  • The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network wrestled successfully with language when they led the protest against the NYU Child Study Center's "Ransom Notes" ad campaign.

The dominant society is not going to lie down and accept any new definition and new terms we choose to call ourselves. There are social and political benefits to holding on to the status quo. We continue to be part of a permanent underclass; a class that is exploited and used for the dominant culture’s purposes. Even politically progressive people are slow or unwilling to accept our movement's basic language and definitions.

As with other liberation movements, we need to continue to claim the vocabulary that describes and defines us and move it toward social and political contexts. It is the only way to claim or full rights as citizens.

Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests. ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge