Notes from the Judge Rotenberg Center Trial

The following comes to us from TASH member Dina Traniello, who attended the JRC trial on Friday, April 13.

I attended McCollins guardian v. Von Heyn et al trial on Friday, April 13 from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM.  The trial is scheduled for two weeks (currently in week 2).  This is a malpractice lawsuit brought by Cheryl McCollins, Andre McCollins’ mother, from an incident that occurred on October 25, 2002.  JRC had 3 attorneys actively working the case and at least 1-2 others who were nearby.  Dr. Marc Whaley and Andre’s mother testified in the AM for the Plaintiffs (this was a continuation from the previous two days of testimony).  Dr. Whaley is a psychiatrist who practices in Chatham, MA.  He is apparently well-known in the malpractice arena as he’s testified in numerous cases.  Dr. Whaley testified that Andre was psychotic at the time and because the GED is not effective for psychosis, this constitutes malpractice.  He contends that JRC should have properly evaluated Andre prior to the first shock administered that day.  The following are my notes from observing the trial.

Andre is a 26-year-old male with ASD who was shocked about 34 times throughout that day in October, 2002 and remained in 4-point restraints on a board (in the classroom).  The jury along with everyone in the courtroom had a chance to observe several minutes of the video tape from that horrible day.  Andre first came in to the classroom (in restraints) and appeared very lethargic—no one would have labeled his behavior as anything but lethargic.  He was asked to take a seat which he did and sat quietly for about 20 minutes at which point the restraints were removed.  He was asked to lean forward, complied with this request and his helmet was removed.  Staff members who were huddled around him soon dispersed (except for one) and no one appeared to be concerned about his behavior.  Andre was asked to take his coat off or something equally as benign prior to the first shock.  He showed very agitated behavior when he was first shocked –we heard a blood curtailing scream as he quickly crawled under the desk.  Apparently this reaction was quite different than others he’d demonstrated during previous shocks and was another reason why Dr. Whaley believed he was psychotic at this time.  (Additionally this was the first or second day that Andre was in this classroom and so it was surprising behavior to not see him more interested in this setting).  Andre was immediately placed on the board and put into 4-point restraints.  Andre’s mother began to cry when she heard her son scream and this was probably the hardest moment for me to be in that courtroom (I was sitting right next to her).  It sounded like he was being tortured.  A physician did not evaluate Andre until after 3:30 that day although Dr. Von Heyn (head clinician at JRC) authorized another 30-40 GEDs.  Although these additional GEDs were not used, Dr. Whaley considered this to be negligent as no medical staff evaluated Andre until late in the day.

The defense tried to make the point that Andre had very challenging “dangerous” behaviors for a number of years prior to his admission to JRC, had several hospitalizations, been in and out of numerous facilities (including Devereux in NY) and that his mother was unhappy with most of these placements.  They also questioned his mother numerous times around the consent issue—pointing out that she had given consent for the GED.  The Plaintiff’s attorney, Mr. Novotny raised the question of whether or not JRC had a duty to disclose to families that students have died at JRC.  This of course resulted in a rather “heated” discussion between the attorneys and several objections.  As a side note, in talking with families whose children have been at JRC, this always seems to me to be such an unfair line of questioning.  We know that families who are about to sign consent for their child are rather desperate—they would give their right arm to find a program that would “help” their son or daughter.  JRC is generally presented as the placement of last resort.  Families are hopeful that the GED will not be used and if it is, believe that it is a relatively benign aversive intervention (like a “bee sting “as JRC representatives are so fond of saying).

After Andre left JRC, he was admitted to Children’s Hospital in Boston for about a week and apparently cried the entire time.  His mother testified that he was afraid of cell phones and remote controls—he would get agitated if he saw anyone pick them up (believing they were going to administer yet another shock).  At some point he was transferred to Long Island Hospital in NY and went several weeks without talking or responding.  He was also at home for some time and Ms. McCollins testified that he was catatonic at times, wouldn’t leave her alone and kept repeating her name.  She testified that he used to love playing games, reading and writing and rollerblading but does not engage in any activities anymore.  I’m not aware of the other facilities he’s resided in during the intervening years.

I was able to speak more in-depth with Andre’s mother during the break and once again realized how few resources there are for families whose children exhibit challenging behavior.  For the most part, she has been alone on this journey.  Andre currently lives in a state facility in Brooklyn, (near his mother) but Ms. McCollins is trying to find a more appropriate residential setting for him.  She is a nurse but currently on disability leave.  I had with me a few brochures for the upcoming TASH NE conference (next month in Worcester) and encouraged her to attend or at the very least, learn more about the organization.  I shared with her that that she wasn’t alone and many of us in the disability community had advocated for years around PBS and the closing of JRC.   Whatever the outcome of this trial, I believe she is a brave woman for taking this case so far.