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Parents want cattle prod used on son

March 9, 2007


Fran Bernstein wants what is best for her severely autistic, 48-year-old son.

So do those operating the Chicago group home where Bradley Bernstein lives.

But they disagree on what is the best way to respond when the stockily built Bradley begins a violent outburst.

His mother has long relied upon a small jolt from a cattle prod to calm her son down.

But disability advocacy groups, as well as the company running Bradley's group home, Trinity Services, are shunning the shock punishments, which state legislators outlawed last year.

'It's not right'

Last week, a Cook County judge cited that new law in denying parents Fran and Robert Bernstein the right to continue having their son shocked for acting out.

But the elderly Lincolnshire couple, who sued Trinity over the issue, say they're going to continue to fight for that right, for Bradley's own good.

"Most of the time, if he starts acting up and beating his head, we just show it to him and that's sufficient," Fran Bernstein said. "We had a judge sign an order saying it was OK to do with proper care, to let him live a decent life. The whole point of doing this was to protect him."

But Art Dykstra, who operates several group homes for Trinity, said the whole point of no longer shocking Bradley is to protect him.

Ironically, Dykstra was among those who agreed, decades ago, that shock treatments were appropriate.

But when he took over the group homes and met the Bernsteins again, "it made no sense to me that this fellow was still being shocked, given his age and given all of the other remedies and approaches we now know about," he said.

"We're not operating a psych hospital or in a university setting -- we're a group home with other bled] adults living there. Think about the impact on others watching him being shocked. My God, not only is it not right for Bradley, it's not right for everybody."


Mom says jolt is tiny

Trinity attorney Matt Henderson said he has "great compassion" for the Bernsteins and has "never doubted their convictions," but leaders in health care now believe "his condition can be managed better" by other means.

But Fran Bernstein says her son, who has cataracts, stopped banging his head when the shock was threatened, lessening his eye damage. She says the shock is tiny, "like walking on carpeting and touching a light switch," and she would never harm him.

Her son can only speak a few words and mostly communicates with his eyes and hand movements. She fears if the shocks stop permanently and he begins banging his head again, it will affect his eyes and ability to communicate.

Though she says she may appeal, she also knows the law only applies when her son is in the group home and not in her home for his regular visits.

"Laws are made to be broken," she said.

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