Mar 17 2008

Facilitated Testimony in the Courtroom

In the late 1980’s and continuing into the 1990’s there were a number of child abuse cases in which convictions were based upon courtroom testimony given through a technique known as facilitated communication. The technique involves a facilitator holding the hand of a client who has impaired communication so that they can type on a keyboard or point to a letter board. The belief was that some children who were thought to be severely cognitively impaired were in fact very bright, but rather just had impaired communication. Once investigators finally got around to putting these claims to the test, however, it was definitively shown that the facilitators were doing all the communication, not the clients.

It is shocking that the extraordinary claims of the facilitated communication (FC) crowd became as widely accepted as they were prior to any skeptical investigation. It is even more shocking that today, long after FC has been shown to be nothing more than self-deception through the ideomotor effect (subtle unconscious motor movements), testimony through FC is still occasionally heard in the courtroom.

A recent case in Oakland Michigan shows all of the folly of using FC in the courtroom, and elsewhere. The parents of a 14 year old autistic girl were led to believe that FC had unlocked their daughter’s hidden inner mental life. That, of course, is the allure of FC – what parent of a non-communicative child would not want to learn that their child is vibrant and intelligent after all? But the parents, victimized by the promoters of FC into this false hope and illusion, were then doubly victimized when a new teacher’s aid at their daughter’s school, Cindi Scarsella, after two hours of FC training, immediately began to “discover” that the girl had been raped by her father for that past eight years while the mother knowingly allowed it.

A nightmare of legal and law-enforcement incompetence follows.

The school reported the alleged abuse. They are legally obligated to do so – their incompetence was in allowing FC in the first place. The local police accepted the FC testimony. When the child’s therapist, Sandra McClennen (who appears to be the heroine of this story, and the only one to demonstrate adequate competence) suggested that they could test the validity of the FC testimony by having a naive facilitator who did not know the allegations perform FC while the child was asked about the alleged abuse. The police refused McClennen’s suggestions.

The prosecutors in this case, led by Dave Gorcyca, aggressively pursued this case based upon evidence that was no better than the spectral evidence presented at witch trials during the inquisition. They were either unaware, or did not care, that FC had already been rejected by the legal and medical communities.

The judge in this case, Marc Barron, allowed the testimony, even after the child failed to answer questions appropriately in the courtroom using FC. Apparently he thought that by allowing the testimony it could then be judged, along with the girl’s competence, on its own merits. However, I fail to see the purpose of allowing testimony that is known to be false into the courtroom in the first place.

Thankfully the charges have now all been dropped, but only after the child was separated from her family and the father jailed for months. The tragedy and pain the family has endured is impossible to calculate, but I would not be surprised if hefty lawsuits do not follow (at taxpayer expense). The charges were dropped not because FC was shown to be a deception, but rather because the child’s psychologist, McClennen, testified in court that she did not believe the FC testimony was accurate and she does not believe the parents are guilty.

There are many lessons to be learned in this case – all of them should have already been learned and unfortunately this is probably not the last time such nonsense will occur. The case, first and foremost, showcases the danger of pseudoscience – of believing in nonsense. This case begins and ends with facilitated communication – a pseudoscientific modality that was promoted prior to be properly studied. It has its proponents still, who cling to their claims despite all reason and evidence.

The family was doubly victimized by the FC scam – by people who have training and authority. So this case further highlights the dangers of legitimizing pseudoscience by institutionalizing it.

The police and prosecutors were overly zealous in this case. They failed to ask the basic skeptical question – are these claims really true. Rather, it seems they were more interested in if they could make a case, rather than whether or not the allegations were true. And they clearly did not do their homework on FC. Five minutes on the internet could have saved the family from heartache, the taxpayers from wasted expense, and all the wasted legal resources.

And the judge in this case also made a dubious decision in allowing the testimony in the first place. I understand that the legal system often grinds slowly, that sometimes it errs on the side of working questions through the system rather than making an a-priori judgment, and that it has to often operate with scientific ambiguity and controversy. However, the question of FC is long past any ambiguity. FC has no place in the courtroom. I think that lawyers and judges need to have as part of their expertise detailed knowledge of what constituted legitimate testimony. It is their job to fully understand FC and why it should not be used as testimony.

Hopefully this case will raise public awareness of this issue and push FC farther to the margins.


Follow up entry on this case:

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