Jun 02 2008

More on FC in the Courtroom and the Oakland Case

Previously I wrote about the case of parents of a 14 year old cognitively impaired girl who were charged with sexual abuse based upon testimony given through facilitated communication. The case was, by all accounts, an incompetent witch hunt which was fortunately dismissed, but only after great harm was done to the family. I discussed the case as it was reported in the mainstream media, but since then I have had the opportunity to discuss the case in detail with James Todd, an expert witness for the defense in the case, and there are aspects of this case that are significantly different than reported. (In fact the case is even worse than what was discussed.) In this follow up I will give more details about the case and discussion the role of FC in the courtroom in more detail.

Facilitated Communication

First, some more background on FC. The technique involves a facilitator physically holding or aiding a client (called the participant) who is cognitively or verbally impaired to communicate by typing on a keyboard, pointing to letters on a card, or similar method. The method was developed by Australian author Rosemary Crossley in 1980. In 1992 the Facilitated Communication Institute was founded at Syracuse University. By that time the technique was quite popular, but has yet to be studied scientifically. As carefully controlled studies began to emerge, however, it was clear that FC was little more than wishful thinking given action by the ideomotor effect. The communication was being done entirely by the facilitators, not by the clients. By 1994 the American Psychological Association put out a position paper stating that FC has no basis in scientific evidence. Since that time FC has been marginalized and is generally considered to be a harmful pseudoscience.

However, some of its supporters never abandoned the claims of FC. The FC Institute at Syracuse, for example, is still promoting FC. Desperate for scientific validation, proponents also began to conduct studies to show what they knew to be true – that FC works. Unfortunately, well-conducted studies clearly showed that FC is an illusion. So inevitably proponents began to turn to pseudoscientific research techniques to manufacture some positive results. For example, inadequately blinding the facilitator to the target information or question.

Current promoter of FC make an attempt to appear as if they have dealt with the “quality control” issues of FC, but they have not. Their attempts amount to giving FC the appearance of legitimacy, but not the substance.

FC in the Courtroom

The media reporting of the Oakland case, in which a 14 year old non-verbal girl allegedly accused her father of molesting her using FC, made it seem as if the child’s therapist, Sandra McClennan, asked the police and prosecutors to test the validity of FC before admitting the testimony in court. Further they made it seem as if McClennan’s testimony in court that she did not believe the girl was in fact molested was instrumental in having the case dismissed. From this reporting it seemed to me that McClennan was the heroine of this story. But the facts, as revealed to me by James Todd, are quite different.

Sandra McClennan is actually an avid proponent of FC. She was responsible for the child receiving FC in the first place and selling her parents on the technique. McClennan is therefore the instigator of all that followed. McClennan is also a close friend of the parents, and she was horrified when another facilitator began to dig up accusations of rape against the father. There is no reason to believe that McClennan’s resistance to these accusations was based upon anything other than her close friendship with the accused. In any case, she was hardly a disinterested expert.

Further, the admissibility of FC in the courtroom involves a specific issue of which McClennan advocates the wrong (that is pseudoscientific) side. McClennan advocates, as she did in this case, testing the validity of FC testimony by bringing in a naive facilitator and then seeing if they come up with the same information. But this test is not reliable for many reasons. For example, a naive facilitator would need to be told what questions to ask. It would not be difficult for them to guess what kind of answers were expected and then to subconsciously type them out. This type of test for the validity of FC is useless.

A more proper test would be to ask the participant a specific question while the facilitator is not present and then see if they can give a meaningful answer. Under these testing conditions, FC fails. It was the defense experts and attorneys who were pushing for this type of test. The judge finally agreed and the prosecutors wanted to carry out the test with the facilitator present but wearing noise cancellation headphones. The defense objected because such headphones are not sufficient to prevent hearing speech. They are deliberately not that effective, because if they were they could be dangerous to wear and the company does not want that liability. The defense convinced the judge to try out the headphones to see that he could still hear conversation, which he could, and thus ended that test. Therefore FC was tested properly, with the following outcome:

The prosecution’s case suffered additional difficulties in the January hearing when FC failed to produce a single correct answer in two seperate tests. In these tests, the facilitators had not been allowed to hear the simple questions asked of the girl. The facilitators had testified that it was not necessary to hear the questions to successfully “facilitate” successfully. Defense experts had testified that scientific evidence showed that FC involves complete control of the output by the facilitators, and had predicted that FC would fail when the facilitators could not hear the questions.

In the end in this case FC was put to a proper test and failed. The defense experts were able to cast doubt upon its validity, and the charges were ultimately dropped. According to reports:

In a surprise development on Monday (3-10-08), prosecutors moved to dismiss all charges without informing the defense.The prosecution claimed that the girl with severe autism at the center of the case had expressed, through facilitation, that she was not willing to testify in court. Oakland County Chief Prosector David Gorcyca wrote, “The option of alternative proofs have been fully evaluated and found to be not legally sufficient to sustain the requisite burden of proof.”

The real heroes in this case were the defense experts who showed that FC could not sustain the “requisite burden of proof.” Ironically, it was also the testimony from the girl, through FC, that she did not want to testify in court that led to the dismissal.


The case of FC in general and with this specific trial show a major feature of pseudoscience – the deliberate use of bad data that can be manipulated to give a desired result. When FC is tested with proper scientific controls it is clear that that facilitator is doing all the communication, not the participant. Proponents do not like this result. It is always difficult when the evidence kills a favored theory, especially when that theory is already being put into clinical practice (which of course was a mistake in itself). These are the times that test one’s professionalism and dedication to science and objectivity. Once the evidence speaks so clearly, the only rational option is to accept it and move on. Those who cannot become pseudoscientists. Typically they embark on a career of doing bad science, with poor controls and enough wiggle room so that they can get a result they like.

The tragedy of pseudoscience is magnified many fold when it is put into practice – such as in this case with the treatment of this child, the advice given to her parents, and ultimately to testimony given in a courtroom.

There is also a more general lesson to learn from this example. We can say with the highest scientific confidence that FC does not work. It is flawed in theory and has failed in practice. And yet FC still has its adherents who believe fervently that it works, who have written books, have institutions, train practitioners, and conduct research. This is an important example of the extent to which humans are capable of self-deception and the degree to which our society allows for the promotion of pseudoscience. When confronted with other possible examples and the question arises – “is it possible that so many people could be so profoundly wrong?” The answer is yes.

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