Law & Order: Season 5, Episode 19

Cruel and Unusual (19 Apr. 1995)

TV Episode  -   -  Crime | Drama | Mystery
7.7
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Evidence indicates that the death, in police custody, of an autistic teenager was the result of longstanding abuse. Suspicion falls on the treatment center where he lived and on its therapist, Dr. Colter.

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Title: Cruel and Unusual (19 Apr 1995)

Cruel and Unusual (19 Apr 1995) on IMDb 7.7/10

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Cast

Episode cast overview, first billed only:
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Dr. Alan Colter
Sheila Tousey ...
Mrs. Vilardi
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Dan Ziskie ...
George Jeffries (as Daniel Ziskie)
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Margo Skinner ...
Eleanor Jeffries
Jennifer Harmon ...
Mrs. Serena Davidson
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Storyline

Detectives Briscoe and Logan investigate the death of Kevin Jeffries, an autistic teenager who died while in police custody. The medical examiner determines that he died from a blood clot - and not from anything the police may have done during the arrest - but also reports that he had bruises on his body. Kevin was living at a behavioral modification clinic but constantly ran away. The clinic admits they kept him in restraints, particularly on those bad days when he was deemed injurious to himself. The head of the clinic, Dr. Alan Colter, generally used aversion therapy to treat his patients. This included electric shocks and a black box that created a complete sensory deprived environment. Colter clearly exceeded New York State guidelines on the use of electric shock and as far as ADA McCoy is concerned, it amounted to torture. The biggest hurdle he will have to overcome are the parents who support Colter and his methods. Written by garykmcd

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19 April 1995 (USA)  »

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Trivia

"Facilitated communication" (the technique of "facilitating" the communicative abilities of a person with autism by "guiding" their hands over a communication device) has largely been discredited throughout the psychiatric community. There are still occasional scholarly articles written in support of FC and it continues to be practiced, albeit rarely. See more »

Goofs

When David Vilardi types out the word "FLOWR" with the help of his mother, in the courtroom, his hand never goes near the 'F' on the keyboard. See more »

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User Reviews

Treating the lowest of mine.
30 October 2011 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

It's an unusually important episode, though it throws in some twists near the end that cause the story to lose its focus on a social problem.

The social problem is autism. Nobody knows what it is. The condition begins at birth and stays that way. The child grows up and seems to be so self absorbed that no one else is admitted to his mind. There's a lot of other stuff, but they're often mute and score low on IQ tests. (And why not? They don't care about doing well on your damned test.) In this case an adolescent autistic boy drops dead because of the application of severe shocks and a sensory-deprivation device that a clinic has illegally applied as part of an aversion therapy program. When the kid behaves well, he's rewarded. When he has a fit, he's shocked or kept in a sensory-deprivation helmet.

A few parents have objected and sued the doctor in charge, but most parents, if they see any improvement at all, are happy with the results, so it's hard for McCoy and Kinkaid to get witnesses. Moreover, the sensory-deprivation device, a red helmet that caused the original death, is missing. And Defense Councel, Jeffrey DeMunn, has come up with a witness who will testify that the red helmet was never used at the clinic. The witness is a mute adolescent boy whose mother will stabilize his hand as he types out responses on a computer.

The first question raised has to do with the use of aversion therapy in behavior modification. Elizabeth Olivet, the police shrink, testifies that the results are temporary, that patients adapt to the shocks, and the voltage must be raised. Then, during the trial, another problem is addressed. Is the autistic witness's mother merely stabilizing her son's hand or is she guiding it? I have a degree in clinical psychology but the therapy I did was family counseling, while I also did considerable research with psychotics and children in special ed classes. I never dealt directly with autistic children and never used behavior modification, though I've seen it used. It works, for certain circumscribed conditions, like a propensity for violence and rape. (I won't describe the technique.) Booster shots are sometimes necessary but not at increased voltage. Dr. Olivet is wrong, unless the literature has changed since I retired.

The second problem, brought up in the trial, is more subtle but equally important. The mother of the autistic witness, a fine performance by Sheila Tousey, genuinely believes that her son is capable of thinking and responding appropriately, although his IQ has tested at around 30, so he's profoundly retarded. In court, McCoy demonstrates that it's not the child who is typing but the mother. The mother is deprived now of her child's love, of which she now realizes he is incapable, and, with the clinic closed, she must take her retarded and loveless son home and care for him herself. "What am I going to do with him?," she asks McCoy. "Do YOU want him? Do YOU want to take him home with you?" It's a poignant moment and McCoy has no answer, and neither does anyone else.


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