Except for a few words, Bradley Bernstein, 48, can't speak. He often beats himself bloody in the face and eyes.
At age three, Bradley was diagnosed with autism and severe mental retardation. His parents, Fran and Bob Bernstein, say they've tried everything: restraints, psychotropic drugs, you name it. The only thing that gets Bradley to stop hitting himself, they say, is an electric cattle prod.
When their son, who they call their "baby," is hurting himself, they zap him with an electric jolt from the prod. This has been going on for nearly 40 years. Even the attendants at Bradley's various group homes around the Chicago area have been using the prod. (Watch Randi Kaye's piece on the cattle prod treatment
But last year, the state of Illinois made it illegal to use electric shock treatment in a group home setting or community facility. So Trinity Services, which owns the group home where Bradley lives, has stopped using the prod.
"Our mission is to help people live full abundant lives. I don't think you do that with cattle prods," said Art Dykstra, Trinity's executive director.
Bradley's parents sued Trinity, hoping to force them to use electric shock again, but the case was thrown out because the treatment is against the law. The Bernstein's say Bradley can still be shocked, due to a 1987 agreement with the Illinois Department of Mental Health which allowed for this treatment.
"We feel we were chosen to have Bradley and to give him what he needed in his life. He's a sick boy, a sick man, and we need to be there for him, and someday we won't be around. I have to make sure while we're here that he gets taken care of," Fran Bernstein told me through her tears.
At his group home, when Bradley starts abusing himself, Trinity workers restrain him and give him a drug to calm him down. Bradley's parents still use the cattle prod as needed when he visits them at home. The new law does not prevent that. They say the electric shock is more humane than restraints and drugs.
I actually let Fran Bernstein shock me when I interviewed the family this week. It was painful for a split second, far worse than the shock you get from simple static electricity. The zap from the cattle prod is 4500 volts. I wouldn't want to do it again, but I can see how it might make Bradley forget he was hurting himself and switch to another activity.
The executive director of The Arc, the largest advocacy group for people with mental retardation, calls this type of treatment "torture." What do you think? And who do you think should have the legal right to decide Bradley Bernstein's treatment? His parents or the state of Illinois?