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Friday, April 29, 2011

Woo in the courtroom

A Michigan couple were accused of sexually abusing their severely autistic daughter. Julian and Thal Wendrow were jailed and their children taken from them and placed in foster care for months before prosecutors dropped the charges. Their daughter Aislinn had supposedly made these accusations-- not verbally, as she is mute, but through Facilitated Communication, a method of allowing people with severe autism (as well as people in vegetative states) to communicate that is apparently still being used despite having been thoroughly discredited.

Facilitated Communication is, quite simply, facilitators "helping" a patient communicate by literally moving his or her hand across a keyboard to type out messages. The easiest way to test whether this is actually evidence of the patient speaking or the facilitator is obviously to allow the patient access to certain information of which the facilitator isn't aware, and then ask him or her questions about that information and see whether the answers are accurate or at least appropriate. This has been tried, time and time again, and it has failed time and time again.  The hope is that FC will somehow reveal a hidden consciousness in the patient which wasn't clear before, but all evidence to date shows that it is simply a matter of facilitators making statements on behalf of the patients-- knowingly or not:

About two hours away, in Schenectady, N.Y., the coordinator of the autism program at the O.D. Heck Developmental Center was skeptical. But his staff members swore by it, and as they were skilled and caring people, psychologist Doug Wheeler decided not to challenge them. 
Nobody, it seemed, had any interest in asking hard questions. 
But then some of the messages the autistic patients were typing startled the Heck Center’s staff. Some of the typed messages, for example, would have triggered invasive diagnostic procedures, such as exploratory surgeries or biopsies. Wheeler decided that, despite the faith of the staff who were using FC, the technique called for verification before major decisions were made based on the messages. 
When Wheeler searched the available journal literature, he found nothing other than Biklen’s article. He decided to conduct his own experiments with a view toward proving to skeptical members of the staff that FC really was a breakthrough. 
Wheeler designed an experiment using facilitator/student pairs that had used FC effectively. “Students would be shown simple photographs of common familiar objects and asked to name or describe them,” Wheeler later recalled. “The facilitators would be ‘blind’ to the pictures by use of a three foot high divider running down the length of a table. The divider would end at the far end of the table in a ‘T,’ allowing pictures to be hung on each side. The facilitator could not see the student’s picture and the student could not see the facilitator’s picture 
Over a period of three months and 180 trials with 12 students and nine facilitators, FC didn’t work, not once. 
Since Wheeler's experiment failed, what had accounted for the way words had poured out of the autistic clients of the Heck Center after FC was introduced? Wheeler’s trial, and subsequent research by others, suggested that facilitators were unconsciously guiding the hands of the patients. They were so heavily invested in what promised to be a breakthrough in the way autistic people lived, they had become blind to their own role in the communication.
“I wanted so hard to believe that it was real, that I wasn’t able to listen to objective thinking about it,” one of the Heck facilitators told the PBS investigative series Frontline in 1993. “It grabs you emotionally right here and once you’re hooked, I mean, you are hooked.” 
True believers refused to give up. One expert insisted FC required “faith.” Some parents and FC advocates excoriated Wheeler. But he was also startled to receive calls from all over the world, from fathers in jail, from mothers whose children had been taken away, after charges of abuse had been leveled through FC messages. 
Abuse charges were remarkably frequent. In 1995, the New York Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities reported that over three years it had received 21 allegations of abuse — often sexual in nature — via FC messages. Just one case was considered “confirmed.” The rest were tossed because there was no evidence or because it was simply impossible for the abuse to have occurred.

As you can imagine, the same proved to be the case with Aislinn.
On Jan. 28 and 29, 2008, Judge Marc Barron held a hearing to determine the accuracy of facilitated communication so that it could be used when Aislinn testified in the coming hearings and her father’s trial. Barron ordered that Scarsella leave the room when Aislinn was asked a question. After the question had been posed, Scarsella could return and facilitate Aislinn’s answer on the keyboard. 
“Do you have a brother or a sister?” Aislinn was asked. 
“3FE65,” she answered. 
Could she clarify that answer? 
“7BQJVWTTT7YI.” 
“What color is your sweater?” 
“JIBHJIH.” 
Belief is a stubborn thing. There were plenty of signs that Aislinn’s supposed accusations against her father were never valid. In early interviews with police she was unable to name her dog or her grandmother, facts Scarsella didn’t know. 
With Aislinn's FC being the only evidence that abuse had occurred, the charges were dropped. On Feb. 22, 2008, after 80 days in jail, Julian Wendrow was released. 
The police said they still feared for the children. 
“We’ve got the scarlet letter,” Julian told msnbc.com. “Some people will still look at us and think I raped my child.” 
The family has been reunited, but the damage has been severe. The Wendrows, who are now suing Scarsella and a variety of officials involved in their case, spent an estimated $60,000 on their defense, money they can’t afford because Thal lost her job. 
The Wendrows suspect the case precipitated her firing. She’s been unable to find another. They fear their house might be foreclosed upon in February. 
They no longer use FC for Aislinn. Instead, they talk to her, touch her, hope they're reaching her.
A federal judge ruled in March that governmental immunity protects the prosecutors in this case against claims of malicious prosecution, but let stand some other claims against them and the Wendrows' suit will go to trial.

James Randi's term for irrational ideas which are unsupported by science and appeal to mystical notions is "woo-woo," or just "woo." For some reason, though FC has been known to be woo since at least 1993, it was used as sufficient evidence to separate parents from their children and accuse them of rape in 2008.  That should absolutely count as malicious prosecution, but in the U.S. protections for prosecutors are so strong that it's virtually impossible to hold them responsible for it.

Being nonverbal or very slow to begin speaking is common for kids on the autism spectrum. And some of them, while they do not speak, are capable of communicating through text-- of their own accord. That doesn't mean that inside of every autistic child who does not do so, there is a person who is "locked in" and can only express him/herself through FC.  But the hope for this to happen has created an inadvertent monster that just refuses to go away, and it is ruining peoples' lives.

If you have iTunes, you can go here and listen to show 200 of Penn Jillette's radio show in which Randi, who has done a lot of work on facilitated communication, calls in to discuss it with Penn and co-host Michael Goudeau who has an autistic son. The show was recorded on 5/9/06.  In the interview they tear into an article  from Time magazine on FC and really delve into why, though parents might desperately want it to work, it's important to be skeptical about it.

1 comment:

  1. This is horrifying. Might as well use a Ouija board.

    I wonder if hysteria over child sexual abuse contributes to the credulousness of investigators. I find it hard to believe that it doesn't.

    It's also exceedingly troubling that any prosecutor wouldn't thoroughly investigate FC before filing criminal charges on the basis of this "method" of communication.

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