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.

16 responses so far

16 thoughts on “More on FC in the Courtroom and the Oakland Case”

  1. superdave says:

    “They are deliberately not that effective, because if they were they could be dangerous to wear and the company does not want that liability.”
    It is actually extremely difficult to cancel human speech because of the unpredictable nature of the waveform, but that is just a nit pick. I have a question for you though Dr. N. Forgive my naive understanding, but if FC did indeed work for a specific patient, wouldn’t that be more indicative of some sort of neuromuscular disorder and not Autism?

  2. superdave says:

    My question is just out of scientific curiosity, I don’t mean to imply support for FC.

  3. mattdick says:

    When we count the victims of this particular case, we tend to think of the father (and to a lesser degree the mother). He was most assuredly hurt by this insanity. But I just can’t get the girl out of my head. To the extent that she understood what was going on, she had to endure these evil people using her as a tool to impugn her father’s love for her.

    It’s certainly possible that she didn’t know what was going on, but imagine her anguish if she did know what was happening. It’s hard to appreciate how horrific this could be.

  4. I think there’s a study waiting for any grad student who wants to find out why it is that supposed ‘helpers’ tend to come up with false molestation charges, of all possibilities. It was the same with the ‘recovered memory’ people, ostensibly in support of the client, but nonetheless coming up with false accusations of sexual molestation by the client’s family and/or friends.

    That’s some sick stuff.

  5. BA says:

    Very important to highlight the victims. This poor family has been put through a horrific experience. Here’s wishing them the best of luck putting the pieces back together. If the media covered the true impact of these quack therapies, they would be doing the public a service rather than a disservice by promoting outlandish nonsense.

  6. RBH says:

    FC looks to me like no more than a version of automatic writing.

  7. Jim Shaver says:

    Hear, hear, Dr. Novella, BA, et al! What really scares me about this and similar stories is that these gullible, zealous prosecutors are the same people we, in a civilized society, entrust to seek justice where and when it is truly deserved. Yet, this case shows that some of these trusted professionals can still be so stubborn as to not even admit fault when their mistaken judgement has terribly harmed an innocent family. Oh no, they resorted to the same disproven magic to “determine” that the girl would not testify against her father, and that is why they had to drop the charges.

    Shame on the FC practitioner who is too dishonest to see or admit to her very serious errors and false accusations, and who continues her beliefs even after simple tests have shown her process to be completely fallible. And more so, shame on the prosecutors, whose credulity in this matter is unforgivable, and whose back-pedalling in dismissing the case only proves their cowardice and falls woefully short of the needed apologies.

  8. eiskrystal says:

    Putting what pieces back together? The father has been accused of rape and the court case was cancelled because “the girl didn’t want to testify”. Let’s face it. No one is going to treat this family the same after this with such an open ended verdict.

    This is a terrible ending and the guy should be suing for defamation of character at the very least. If only for closure.

    I’m also a little confused how, after proving that FC is rubbish, FC was then used to back out of the case. How dumb that it was even tried, never mind that it passed muster. I hope the father does sue the pants off them.

  9. Lawyerbill says:

    I practice in Oakland County, MI. This story needs a bit of context. The main problem with the Oakland County Prosecutors Office, in my opnion, is that the assistant prosecutors have little to no discretion whether to press charges. If someone makes an allegation, the police make an arrest. Once someone is arrested, the Prosecutors Office will prosecute.

    There was a recent case in Oakland County where a teacher was accused of molesting two students in a classroom during school hours. However, the classroom where the alleged molestation took place was occupied, all day, by multiple school employees. All of these people confirmed that no assualt took place and that neither the students nor the teacher was in the room at any time on the day of the alleged assualt. The Prosesutors office proceded anyway. No conviction. Also, Gorcya is facing ethics charges for the way he handled this case.

    A recent newspaper story showed that Oakland County has one of the lowest conviction rates for sex offences. This is do to the fact that there is no exercise of prosecutorial discretion and many cases that should never be prosecuted are brought to trial.

    What makes the FC case so scarry is that when you have a gung-ho procecutor with psudoscientific evidence there is a very real possibility of a wrongful conviction. The defendant in the FC case was lucky that he could afford good council to attack the validity of FC. The next defendant accused with FC evidence may not have the means to defend him/herself.

  10. I’m no lawyer, and to the degree TV depictions of court trials are accurate, both the prosecution and defense are allowed respective ‘expert’ witnesses, experts often diametrically opposed on the exact same issue. I’m sure money has nothing to do with it. However, as stated I’m no lawyer, but I believe the judge is allowed to consult his/her own experts on a given topic. You’d hope that might preempt a lot of indictments where dubious science or outright pseudoscience is a main part of the prosecution, or of the defense’s case for that matter.

    I was born and raised in Detroit, but haven’t lived there in many years, decades actually. At present I work in the intersect between the local criminal justice system and substance abuse treatment in Wake County, NC (Raleigh, state capital). I catch clients only after they’ve been adjudicated and so am not in court much, but local lawyers tell me Wake County operates the opposite of how LawyerBill (Bill Clinton?) describes the Oakland County prosecutor’s office. Apparently Wake County only prosecutes sexual offenses where the case is an absolute sure thang, a slam dunk. So, in Oakland County MI you’d have a pattern of innocent people getting at least publicly smeared, at worst falsely convicted due to prosecutorial zealotry, while in Wake County NC you’d have the guilty going free too often due to excessive prosecutorial caution.

    Given how much the prosecution of serious crimes increasingly relies on good science, I wish there was a system independent of both the prosecution and the defense where somebody official could intervene to have a given scientific assertion by either side reviewed and explained to the judge, who might then rule on its admissability. I know either side can seat expert witnesses to counter the other side’s experts, but what trial allows an attorney the time and opportunity to fully educate a jury on the efficacy of something like FC, recovered memories, homeopathy, etc. ? It’s like those bleever message boards where the ‘jury’ listens to both sides and then decides which is ‘true’. On a 12 person jury, how many are likely to be at least scientifically ignorant… 7-8-9-10? How many are likely to be woos?

    All I know is that when my plan for world domination comes to final fruition, there’s gonna be some changes. I need a volunteer to command New Jersey, btw…….

  11. _Arthur says:

    Why not use Ouija boards ?

  12. Judy Bailey says:

    Why some people with autism have difficulty conveying certain types of information is truly intriguing. Tito Mukhopadhyay, who communicates independently through handwriting reports on his difficulties in his book “How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move?” He writes that for him it is easier to recall information from factual memory than from episodic memory. See Why Factual Memory is Safer than Episodic Memory (pp. 204-205). “Perceptions play a vital role in how a memory is stored. When it comes to narrating an episodic memory, I dare to do it only when I am very sure of my experience, as it was recorded in my mind without accessory components evolving out of my emotions or my overassociations with one component in that experience. . . . Many times Mother and I have compared the same happenings and I would be surprised to find what Mother called grocery shopping was, to me, a mouthful of the taste of bitter gourd, although I was sure that bile did not fill my mouth.”
    “I feel safer with stored answers from my factual memory because they are based on natural laws. Storing factual memory does not involve the extra component of emotion. For instance, if someone asks me the definition of catastrophe, I can safely say, “Catastrophe means the loss of stability in a dynamic system.” I might further link the definition to the mathematics of probability in genetic mutation, which might have caused me and others like me to live with autism. To recall such a memory, I would not experience any extra colors as an additional component in the environment. My words would be directly backed by some laws in science, abiding by the rules of Nature. I would feel safer recalling such an answer than something like, ‘What were you doing on Thursday when you heard the phone?'”

    In another chapter, Imagining and Experiencing (page 22), Mr. Mukhopadhyay reports having difficulties with imagination and reality. “My boundary between imagining and experiencing something was a very delicate one. Perhaps it still is. So many times I need to cross-check with Mother, or someone who can understand my voice now, whether an incident really happened around my body or presence.”

    Mr. Mukhopadhyay’s difficulties passing messages were detailed in Strange Son by Portia Iverson on pages 247-252. Even though he could write independently, he had extreme difficulty. Truly there is much still to be understood about how the brain functions, particularly in an individual with autism who has difficulty communicating.

    Many individuals with autism spend years unable to communicate before having at least some success with an augmentative communication method. It is not surprising that it is difficult for them, for their families and service providers, and for science to sort out their specific challenges in developing effective communication in any and all circumstances. Individuals such as Mr. Mukhopadhyay who uses independent handwriting and individuals who have learned to type independently through facilitated communication training or other methods will undoubtedly provide valuable information that will help researchers explore and understand the complexities involved. There is much to learn and it is important to remain open to the possibility that there are new perspectives to be gained by looking more closely and exploring more deeply and by avoiding drawing vast overreaching conclusions or making broad generalizations about facilitated communication training and other alternative communication methods based on present research that is still quite limited in scope and complexity.

  13. arringt3415 says:

    I am a former teacher of children with autism. I have written some articles posted on my website that challenge current thinking in regard to facilitated communication, pointing, RPM, and so called”independent” typing. It has been a painful process watching the continued proliferation of half truths.

    I do not regard people with autism who hit the keys by themselves but need an “agent” or “facilitator” in their proximity as “independent”. That includes all the people of considerable notoriety that I have seen type at conferences, on television or videos. It also includes those using independent pointing, selecting answers from a field of choices, and/or using RPM. My personal experiences suggest It is a partnership that can be influenced by the dominant person through the use of mental prompts, sub–vocalizations, and possible extremely subtle cuing. I can clearly demonstrate that I can purposefully affect the communications of the many people I have worked with. Therefore, it is and always has been necessary that I openly share that possibility of influence, thru non sensory channels with everyone. I refuse to state that information that could be inadvertently tainted by my own consciousness, knowledge base and bias is coming totally from the person typing. For me, that would be a severe distortion of truth and subsequently should never be allowed in a court of law.

    This controversial phenomena of shared has much to teach us about consciousness. Eliminating what does not work in the process and vigorously testing what remains could lead mankind to expanded awareness far beyond what is currently understood. Our teachers with severe autism have been here and ready to teach us for a long time.

    Please start to listen!

    Mary Ann

    For more information, please check website below. If I can be of any further assistance, let me know.

    Personal URL: http://web.mac.com/maharrington

  14. arringt3415 says:

    I just checked my website and the format has become quite distorted on some of the pages. My Mac bit the dust so I am unable to go in and correct it.

    If you are interested in my unique perspective based on the many individuals with autism I have used FC and similar strategies with,
    cut and paste the link below. The material is similar to the website but the format is better.

    I hope you will take the time to check it out.


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