UN Demands Child Electroshock Torture Investigation in NZ; FDA Fails to Ban it in US

Where the FDA fails to protect citizens, including those behaviorally disturbed at Judge Rotenberg, or in psychiatric facilities where patients are electroshocked, it falls to governments to force the FDA and behavioral facilities to abide by the UN Convention on Torture or face the consequences. And in the case of electrical interventions, ban them. — CCHR International

The use of “electrocution” devices for behavior modification is condemned by the UN, but NZ and the US FDA have notoriously failed to protect children from them. CCHR reports electroshock harms children and UN warns it is torture.

Jan Eastgate, President
CCHR International
The Mental Health Industry Watchdog
January 6, 2020

The United Nations Committee Against Torture has condemned New Zealand officials’ failure to fully investigate and prosecute the use of electroshock for behavior modification of children, describing the practice as torture. On December 27, 2019, the UN issued a report calling for further investigation and, potentially, prosecution in relation to more than 180 children having their genitals or other body parts shocked at NZ’s Lake Alice state psychiatric hospital in the 1970s.[1] Despite the lapse in time, former victims are still fighting for answers on how a psychiatrist who treated them has been able to escape justice over the terrifying abuse, using what they call an “electrocution” device.[2]

Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) in New Zealand was instrumental in getting the shock ward shut down in the 1970’s and was joined by CCHR in Australia and International in championing for compensation for the victims. In 2001, the government eventually apologized paying NZ$10 million (US$6.7 million) in compensation to those who survived the torture.

CCHR supported a former patient, Paul Zentveld, in filing complaints to the UN Committee on Torture. Zentveld claimed that psychiatrist Selwyn Leeks electrocuted boys’ genitals as a punishment. Leeks never faced charges, which prompted Zentveld’s decision to go to the UN. [3] The UN raised concerns over a police decision to end its criminal investigation in 2009 without prosecuting any staff. The police are now reviewing the UN report.[4]

CCHR International said it is still waiting for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the similar use of electroshock for behavior modification at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), just outside of Boston, where mentally disabled and autistic children and adults are treated.[5] In 2010, Manfred Nowak, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, sent an urgent appeal to the US government, urging an investigation into the school. “This is torture,” said Nowak.[6] A powerful video released by Fox News in 2012 further showed a student being painfully shocked 31 times for over seven hours for refusing to take off his coat.[7]

At that time, another Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, told Fox Undercover, “The passage of electricity through anybody’s body is clearly associated with pain and suffering.”[8]

In April 2014, a special advisory panel of the FDA recommended a ban on the use of electrical stimulation devices for child behavior control or “aversive therapy.”[9] It took another five years before the FDA agreed in January 2019 to ban the device.[10]

However, despite six children having died in Judge Rotenberg’s care, countless patient reports of abuse, FOX news showing a child writhing and screaming in agony as he is repeatedly shocked, and numerous lawsuits and damning governmental and UN investigative reports, the device, called a graduated electronic decelerator (GED), is still in use.[11]

Patented by Matthew Israel, a Harvard University-educated psychologist, electrodes emit 60 volts and 15 milliamps of electricity in two-second bursts through electrodes attached to the arms, legs, or stomachs of students.[12] The device is stronger than police stun guns.[13]

While heading CCHR in Australia in the 1990s I worked with the NZ office to expose the plight of the Lake Alice victims. Moving to the U.S., I was appalled to find similar use of shock torture of the mentally disabled at the Judge Rotenberg center. It is a stark reminder of how children are tortured in the name of behavioral care. Like the NZ government and psychiatric agencies, the FDA is dragging its heels in banning the skin shock device. FDA also endorses, through inaction, the general use of electroshock therapy—up to 460 volts sent through the brain—on children aged five and younger. Neither the FDA nor the psychiatrists or psychologists administering electrical stimulation are being held accountable.”

Here are some comparisons between the three shock “therapies”:

  • One Judge Rotenberg patient explained that it feels “like a thousand bees stinging you in the same place for a few seconds,” adding “it is torture, in the plainest sense of the word.”[14]
  • Former Lake Alice patient in NZ, Marty Brandt, said the skin shock left him with “permanent marks on the underside of my penis.” “The genitals were [the psychiatrist’s] favorite spot. It was just straight pain,” another victim, Charlie Symes, said. A third victim, Malcolm Richards, said the electrocution appliance sparked and he received a burn on the end of his penis.[15]
  • As for ECT, often used to treat depression, Kenny, interviewed for a new documentary, Electroshock: Therapy or Torture, states: “I do consider shock treatment torture because it damaged me physically and mentally in every way….”
  • Judy, also interviewed for the documentary, says: “I underwent electroshock therapy from the ages of 14 to 16….It beat all the abuse I ever experienced. It beat the rapings, the molestations, it beat everything. Because it did so much to me psychologically and physically.”

CCHR says the FDA is endorsing torture in the US by procrastinating on banning the GED and ECT devices, just as the psychiatric organizations in NZ did with Lake Alice.

On December 27, 2019, the UN formally responded to Paul Zentveld and CCHR NZ. In a 16-page decision and report, the UN Committee Against Torture, stated that it “considers that the State party’s failure to conduct an effective investigation into the circumstances surrounding the acts of torture and ill-treatment suffered by the complainant while admitted at the Child and Adolescent Unit of the Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital is incompatible with the State party’s obligations” to the Convention on Torture. As a result, New Zealand has “violated its obligations to properly investigate” the “claims of torture and had endorsed actions leading to impunity of the responsible psychiatrist, Selwyn Leeks.”

After the Lake Alice children’s ward was closed, Selwyn Leeks moved to Australia where CCHR filed complaints calling for the revocation of the psychiatrist’s license to practice. He eventually surrendered his license over charges of unprofessional conduct. Separately, an Australian court ordered him to pay $55,000 in damages to a female patient he’d sexually abused.[16]

Dr. Matthew Israel, who helped develop Judge Rotenberg’s electrical device, was fined $29,000 in 2009 by the Massachusetts Board of Psychological Registration for knowingly permitting unlicensed clinicians at the center to use the title of “psychologist.”[17] In 2011, Israel agreed to resign from the center under a plea bargain agreement to resolve criminal charges filed in the Norfolk County Superior Court involving JRC’s use of electric shock on two teenagers, The Boston Globe reported. The charges of misleading a grand jury and accessory after the fact to a crime apparently related to the destruction of surveillance tapes that would have showed the teenagers being repeatedly shocked by JRC staff on the instructions of a prank caller.[18] Israel pleaded not guilty and agreed to step down from the Center in order to avoid prison time. He was put on probation for five years.[19]

He then went to work at a special education school in California, Tobinworld II, where state officials showed he did not have the requisite licenses and credentials to do so. That school’s troubles deepened in January, 2016, when a video showing a teacher’s aide hitting a 9-year-old boy appeared online. The school, which was the subject of state and police investigations for alleged abuse of a student, announced its closure in July that year.[20]

UK clinical psychologist and author, Craig Newnes, spoke candidly about electroshock in the documentary Electroshock: Therapy or Torture, stating: “People often ask, ‘What is electroshock?’ And what it is, is electrocution. That’s all it is.” Further, “The biggest mystery of all is why on earth people think that putting bolts of electricity through people’s heads is a good idea.”

CCHR says that that mystery is extended to all electrical interventions to treat or curb behavioral issues. Where the FDA fails to protect citizens, including those behaviorally disturbed at Judge Rotenberg, or in psychiatric facilities where patients are electroshocked, it falls to governments to force the FDA and behavioral facilities to abide by the UN Convention on Torture or face the consequences. And in the case of electrical interventions, ban them.

Change.org carries two petitions in support of electroshock bans: one by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network which has more than 303,000 signatures to date: https://www.change.org/p/fda-ban-torture-of-people-with-disabilities-and-stoptheshock; and CCHR’s petition to ban ECT that already has around 112,000 signatures: https://www.change.org/p/ban-electroshock-ect-device-being-used-on-children-the-elderly-and-vulnerable-patients


[1] “United Nations finds New Zealand breached Convention against Torture in Lake Alice abuse allegations,” Newshub, 29 Dec. 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2019/12/united-nations-finds-new-zealand-breached-convention-against-torture-in-lake-alice-abuse-allegations.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.lakealicehospital.com/news-articles.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] “The School of Shock,” Mother Jones, 20 Aug. 2007, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2007/08/school-shock/

[6] Laurie Ahern, “Disabled children at Mass. school are tortured, not treated,” The Washington Post, 2 Oct 2010, washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/17/AR2010091705376.html.

[7] https://www.cchrint.org/2012/06/21/electroshocktorturekid/ citing, http://www.myfoxboston.com/story/18840703/2012/06/20/un-investigating-judge-rotenberg-centers-use-of-shocks

[8] https://www.cchrint.org/2012/06/21/electroshocktorturekid/ citing, http://www.myfoxboston.com/story/18840703/2012/06/20/un-investigating-judge-rotenberg-centers-use-of-shocks

[9] https://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/08/prweb12082017.htm, citing,  Kevin Rothstein, “FDA panel recommends banning shock devices,” My Fox Boston, 24 Apr 2014, myfoxboston.com/story/25335849/fda-panel-recommends-banning-shock-devices.

[10] “School Shocks Students With Disabilities. The FDA Is Moving To Ban The Practice,” WBUR News, 23 Jan 2019, https://www.wbur.org/npr/687636057/massachusetts-school-defends-use-of-electric-shock-treatments

[11] https://autisticadvocacy.org/2014/08/prisoners-of-the-apparatus/

[12] http://www.bostonmagazine.com/articles/2008/06/the-shocking-truth/

[13] http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/324352

[14] “FDA Executive Summary, Prepared for the April 24, 2014 meeting of the Neurological Devices Panel, Electrical Stimulation Devices for Aversive Conditioning,” Food and Drug Administration, 2014, http://docplayer.net/150858466-Fda-executive-summary-prepared-for-the-april-24-2014-meeting-of-the-neurological-devices-panel.html

[15] “United Nations finds New Zealand breached Convention against Torture in Lake Alice abuse allegations,” Newshub, 29 Dec. 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2019/12/united-nations-finds-new-zealand-breached-convention-against-torture-in-lake-alice-abuse-allegations.html

[16] http://www.lakealicehospital.com/news-articles.html

[17] “Massachusetts Board of Registration of Psychologists Formally Reprimands and Fines the Executive Director of the Judge Rotenberg Center,” Official Website of the Board of Registration of Psychologists, 2009

[18] “Facing Criminal Charges, Matthew Israel Leaves Judge Rotenberg Center,” ASAN, 25 May 2011, https://autisticadvocacy.org/2011/05/facing-criminal-charges-matthew-israel-leaves-judge-rotenberg-center/

[19] https://psychcentral.com/blog/matthew-israel-founder-of-judge-rotenberg-steps-down-in-disgrace/

[20] “Tobinworld to close: Antioch special needs school investigated for abuse,” East Bay Times, 7 July 2016, https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2016/07/07/tobinworld-to-close-antioch-special-needs-school-investigated-for-abuse/