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Settlement Reached In Autism Treatment Dispute

December 13, 1986

ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) _ A judge would decide on a case-by-case basis when spanks, pinches and other such ″aversive″ therapy could be used to control autistic students at a school the state had said should be closed, according to a tentative agreement reached Friday.

Under the proposed settlement between the state and the school it said used abusive treatments, the state also will pay about $580,000 in legal fees to Behavior Research Institute Inc. and the parents of its profoundly disturbed students.

Bristol County Probate Judge Ernest Rotenberg scheduled a Jan. 7 hearing to decide whether he would approve the settlement.

The parents of children at the school, who supported the treatment, had filed a $15 million lawsuit against the Massachusetts Office for Children, which had tried to block the use of the therapy. The state agency licenses the Providence, R.I.-based school’s seven group homes in Massachusetts.

Under the agreement, BRI would be allowed to accept new students for the first time since the controversy over the treatment began in September 1985.

″We got everything. They got rid of the mess,″ said Leo Soucy, a leader of the parents’ group.

Soucy, whose son, Brendan, is a severely autistic 19-year-old, said he was especially pleased with the judge’s proposed role as arbiter of treatments for Soucy’s son and other students.

Assistant Attorney General E. Michael Sloman, who represented OFC, said he considers the settlement a victory for the commonwealth as well as BRI because it resulted in an improved program with better supervision.

Although there may be a perception that the state was backing down from its previous desire to ban all forms of aversive therapy, he said he prefers to see the outcome as a compromise that serves all interests.

OFC Executive Director Mary Kay Leonard defended her agency’s role in the dispute. She denied claims by the students’ parents that her original decision to clamp down on the aversive therapy was politically motivated.

″I think one of my regrets about this case has been how it has been portrayed as a battle between the office and the parents of students at BRI,″ said Ms. Leonard, an attorney by training.

″In hindsight I would have reached out more to the parents,″ she said.

The agreement aso makes the state Department of Mental Health, rather than the OFC, the licensing agent for BRI as of July 1, 1987. At least until then, Rotenberg will retain jurisdiction over the program.

″I think everyone has won. I’m extremely pleased,″ said Dr. Matthew Israel, who founded and directs the school. ″I think we can get back to the serious business of providing treatment to a very needy class of students.″

State concerns over the school’s methods were raised following the July 23, 1985, death of Vincent Milletich, a 22-year-old autistic New York man, who suffered a seizure while shackled, helmeted and being forced to listen to static sounds at a BRI home in Seekonk. The death was never attributed to the aversive therapy.

OFC and other critics claimed the therapies are abusive and would be illegal if used on animals or prison inmates.

Supporters, including parents of students, say it is the most effective and humane way to deal with otherwise uncontrollable teens and young adults.

The aversive therapy ranges from a simple ″no″ to spanks or pinches. One of the most controversial treatments is the Restrained Time Out station, in which a student is shackled inside a booth, helmeted and water vapor is sprayed into his face.

The school has 43 students from Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wyoming and New Hampshire. States pay $87,000 yearly per student.

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