What are the prices we pay for following unsubstantiated treatments and bogus therapies? Sometimes, the costs are tragically high. Facilitated communication is unequivocally one of those bogus remedies that promises far more than it can deliver and can destroy lives in the process, lives like those of Julian and Thal Wendrow, whose 14-year-old daughter accused her father of molesting her for years and her mother of standing by while it happened. Except it turns out that this young woman, severely autistic and nonverbal did no such thing; the aide at her school who facilitated her was the one to apparently type out the accusation.
The Detroit Free Press reports:
“A school aide reported that a 14-year-old autistic girl, who can't speak and functions at the level of a 2-year-old, was telling her that her father began raping her when she was 7 and her mother stood by. The claim came from a method known as facilitated communication, in which the aide helped the girl type on a keyboard.
There was no physical evidence the girl had been assaulted, but the typed message became the key evidence against West Bloomfield residents Julian and Thal Wendrow.”
Julian and Thal Wendrow got some small measure of justice recently when “the township's insurance carrier has agreed to pay his family and attorney $1.8 million to settle a wrongful-arrest suit.”They still have ongoing suits against the prosecutor, the school district, and Michigan’s Department of Human Services.
If this were the only case of wrongful accusations from children who were being facilitated, perhaps we could dismiss this case as a fluke. But it’s not the only case. In 1995, Bryna Siegel referred to two cases where, through the means of facilitated communication, fathers were accused of molesting their children. Fortunately, through Siegel’s assessment showing that facilitated communication with two different and new-to-the-children facilitators resulted in “little reliable communication…via FC” and the charges were dropped. A review of Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw will bring up more cases like this, as will any search of the Psychology or Education journal databases.
What is especially heinous about this case is the ignorance and unwillingness of the prosecutor’s office in 2008 to investigate the merits of facilitated communication. Indeed, according to the Denver Free Press, “Oakland County prosecutors said in depositions that they did not investigate the facilitated communication method before charging the Wendrows, and could not find anyone to testify that the method is reliable, despite nationwide calls after the arrests.” Couple this incredible lapse on the prosecutors’ parts with the judge, despite cases dating back to 1992 of judges ruling “that allegations made by F/C could not be considered as evidence because the validity of F/C has not been established,” and you have a catastrophe that was completely avoidable.
It gets worse, though. What was a debunked therapy doing in the local school system, giving FC the patina of respectability? Why is FC still going strong despite two decades of solid evidence that is nothing more than a scam? Well, we can look to Douglas Biklen and his employer, Syracuse University, who think so highly of him that he is their Dean of the School of Education, where he continues to promote actively the debunked facilitated communication method with his newly renamed and revamped Institute on Communication and Inclusion. And yet, where was expert Douglas Biklen when those Oakland County prosecutors put out the call for FC experts? Why, if he believes so strongly in his facilitated communication method was he not offering his services? If it's real, then wouldn't he be the first to testify to its legitimacy, to ensure the safety and well-being of those whose only "voice" is through his facilitated communication method?
Facilitated communication, to quote Robert T. Carroll of the Skeptic’s Dictionary, is a “dangerous delusion.” It is a delusion we can ill afford and school districts who use it and its weaker cousin rapid prompting method must be held to higher standards, empirical standards. Our most vulnerable must not have their voices, their communication, co-opted by well-meaning but misguided facilitators and even worse, those charlatans who know what they do and do it intentionally in order to line their pockets and cast themselves to desperate parents as the heroic persons who set free the hidden person that autism had locked away.
But, I can comment from afar in blog-world, safe from the direct vicissitudes of facilitated irrationality. The worst I might have to endure are comments from true believers defending what, by any reasonable standards has long-since ceased to be defensible. I can be depressed and appalled, perhaps with an emotional toll, but my garden will be there, the cats will purr, and I'll go to work tomorrow. What is it like when it really counts, when a man's life literally hangs in the balance--a man sitting alone in jail, who might stay there for years or decades to come due to fantastic allegations of years incest, rape, and abuse? What is it like when the key to freedom is held by authorities who are disinclined by politics to be receptive to any counterarguments and inclined by irrationality to be especially disdainful of science? Jim Todd, who has occasionally commented here on this blog on FC and related matters, has seen this first-hand, and tells that even very high stakes seem to have little moderating effect on woo. We'd hope that understanding the massive power the state holds over defendants, especially those in abuse cases where the standard rules of evidence are relaxed, our justice system might heed the words of Robert H. Jackson in his classic 1940 essay, "The Federal Prosecutor."
It appears the opposite was true in the case at hand. Now over to Jim:
I was one of the defense experts in the original criminal case against the Wendrows, along with Howard Shane, both of us testifying and consulting. It is hardly possible to describe how bizarre,vicious, and unjust the prosecution of the family was. In a rational world, accusations arising from facilitated communication would never be used in court. Facilitated accusations would summarily dismissed, and those who advanced them would be the ones in trouble. After more than a quarter century, there remains not a single methodologically sound study showing that FC has worked for a single individual. Dozens of studies have shown it reliably fails to produce genuine communication. The output is the facilitator's. That is what the science has shown--over and over. That's the reality of FC.
There are connections. Five years ago, James Randi was scheduled to speak at Eastern Michigan University. The invitation was inspired, in part, by FC training sessions given by a local autism advocacy group. Randi issued his $1,000,000 challenge to the group. No one accepted despite their many hollow insistences that FC is absolutely real. A whole panel of "FC users" and their facilitators, all associated with the Syracuse University Facilitated Communication Institute, were listed as workshop "trainers." Yet none of them seemed to want a million dollars for doing something they claimed to do successfully every day, that they were taking money to teach. Those connections? The family in the case was at those training sessions, as was I. We saw different things. I saw facilitators pushing hands around, staring intently at letter boards and keyboards, the non-verbal "communicators" often looking everywhere but. The family, desperate for help for a child with severe autism, saw a communication miracle. And FC was relentlessly presented as a miracle. On the second day of the workshop, another mother tearfully reported that her non-verbal child, with the help of one of the workshop trainers, had supposedly typed, "I just wanted to tell you I love you," the very first time of being facilitated. It is a tragedy that the family had to be tortured into seeing through the fraud.
The judge ruled in the case that FC is "interpretation," as in translating one language into another, thus a source of admissible testimony. For those not involved in legal issues, by ruling as he did, the judge effectively immunized the FC testimony against a general scientific challenge. When he said that he found "nothing scientific" in FC, he wasn't declaring it a fraud. He was denying a Daubert hearing to determine the scientific reliability of the method. He ruled as he did despite hearing every expert inthe case argue against using FC testimony. Before long, no one but the the judge, prosecutor, and two school facilitators seemed to believe the accusations came from the girl. The doubters even included the prosecution's own expert, a long-time local FC advocate. She is a true, true believer who did not abandon her general belief in FC, but questioned the charges and the validity of the facilitated testimony. It's got to be a weak FC case when even FC advocates won't get behind it. She also had something to lose. She had introduced the family to FC.
The expert testimony, bolstered by anti-FC resolutions from the APA and several other major scientific and professional organizations, should have been enough to end the farce. But there were more affronts to science and rationality. The judge ruled that FC was a valid form of testimony even after seeing two failed in-court tests of the girl's communication ability done on two different days. There was not a single correct answer given using FC when the facilitators could not hear the questions. It is not evident from any of the news coverage, but the judge made essentially the same decision about FC as the Kansas Supreme Court made in a case involving FC in the early 1990s. Whywould a judge rely for guidance on a case decided before any published science had been done on FC, ignoring the dozens of studies done since? Why would the repudiation of the method by numerous professional and scientific groups mean nothing? Why was the inability of the girl, supposedly capable of high school level work, to answer simple questions with FC, irrelevant? I don't know. Maybe an ill-informed early decision (that does not even qualify as legal precedent in Michigan) is worth more to our court than all the objective science that has come since. I am not sure they viewed science as a legitimate or honorable activity. A colleague who was working another case against the same prosecutor was reportedly referred to (sneeringly, it was said) as "the scientific testimony person." I was asked by the prosecutor, also sneeringly, if I understood the difference between scientific reality and legal reality. I answered that I hoped both would converge on the same reality. That would not happen. Any wormhole through which scientific facts might intrude upon our little universe was closed by the judge.
There's more. Much more. But to recount it all would be to try to write a book in this little space. Suffice it to say that this was a prosecution which had lost its rational moorings, reaching and grasping for whatever it could in the absence of any credible evidence that a crime had even been committed. If you want to understand the irrationality surrounding this, we could talk about how the judge threw out all notions of impartiality by allowing the aide who made the original accusations to serve as the "interpreter" for the girl in court. We could talk about how the prosecution proposed a "blind" test in which the facilitator would have been allowed to hear the questions. We could talk about how the facilitated testimony contained errors pointing directly to the facilitator as the source of the messages. We could talk about how the father was jailed (for contempt) despite statements from the court's assigned guardian, a rabbi, that the father had not, in fact, visited the daughter against court orders. We could talk about the warrants that failed to turn up the gun, pictures, or any of the other incriminating items that the facilitator typed that the family had. However, perhaps the most salient evidence that things in the prosecutor's office were not going to be tied to reality comes from the contemporaneous "Perry" case against a kindergarten teacher also falsely accused of abuse. The very same prosecutor argued in Perry that Mr. Perry owned pornography. Challenged on this, the prosecutor revealed that the movies were"Star Wars," "Harry Potter," and similar offerings, actually characterizing them as "non-erotic pornography." I submit that anyone capable of making that kind of illogical leap to incriminate a man against whom only the flimsiest of evidence was available is capable of believing anything whatsoever--including FC.
We are told that in the end the science Howard and I offered in testimony convinced someone in the prosecutor's office, forcing the county to drop the FC case. Even that was not without controversy. The prosecutor claimed the girl typed, with FC, that she was unwilling totestify against her parents, then moved to keep her away from the family. Another judge denied the motion, and quickly reunited everyone.
This case? It's a civil suit with lots of defendants. The police have settled. That was not a foregone conclusion. But, they could probably do nothing else given the huge embarrassment the incident continues to bring to them. They admit no fault. Let's hope that behind the legal distancing, they have become more educated. Pretty much everyone else involved in the school and prosecutor's office have either qualified or absolute immunity. The school district itself may be a different story. The vagaries of justice mean almost anything can happen--but that it will probably be a long coming no matter what it is.
James T. Todd, Ph.D.