In a quiet suburban community north of Detroit, one Michigan family thought it was witnessing a miracle: After years of silence, their autistic daughter seemed to be finally communicating and even excelling in school. Little did family members know that the technique that seemed to open their daughter's world would provide fodder for an aggressive police investigation that nearly tore the family apart.
The story of the Wendrow family's agonizing ordeal began with hope. Diagnosed with autism at age 2, their daughter Aislinn was severely disabled -- so much so that she couldn't communicate. But in 2004, the West Bloomfield, Mich. family thought the girl had experienced a breakthrough: a technique called facilitated communication seemed to allow Aislinn to communicate what she was thinking.
The technique involves a trained person called a facilitator, who holds a disabled person's arm while they type on a keyboard. For Aislinn, this seemed miraculous -- for the first time in her life, she now appeared to be able to answer questions, complete grade level schoolwork and even write poetry. By the time she graduated middle school, a teacher had told the Wendrows that Aislinn wanted to go to college and become a professor.
"All those dreams we had we thought were dashed are back and now maybe she will go to college and have a real job, and have a lot more independence in her life," her mother, Tali Wendrow remembered.
Those dreams were soon replaced by a nightmare. In high school, Aislinn was paired with a new facilitator, Cindy Scarsella. On Nov. 27, 2007, using FC, Aislinn typed out something no one expected: "My dad gets me up...He puts his hands on my private parts."
With just a few keystrokes, Aislinn had supposedly accused her father, Julian Wendrow, of the unthinkable -- sexual assault as recently as the previous weekend.
The school, Brasier said, reported the allegations. Child protective services immediately removed Aislinn and her younger brother Ian from their home and the local prosecutor's office sprang into action. According to Brasier, the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office had a reputation on sex cases.
"There was the sense that they'd never met a child who hadn't been molested," Brasier said. "If an allegation was made, they would charge immediately."
Two days after the initial allegations, Aislinn was brought to a special county agency to meet with investigators. Once again, Scarsella was by her side, even though the Wendrows, along with facilitated communication experts, advised investigators to bring in a different facilitator -- one with no knowledge of the allegations.
That didn't happen.
With Scarsella's help, Aislinn seemed to divulge even more sensational details about alleged sexual abuse by her father, saying the abuse had started when she was just six years old, that her father had taken naked pictures of her and that he had forced her younger brother, Ian, to take part in the abuse as well while her mother did nothing to stop the abuse.
The allegations were doubly painful for the Wendrows. Knowing the allegations of horrific abuse through faciliated communication were untrue, they realized that all of Aislinn's apparent accomplishments had to be equally false.
"We had to swallow a pretty bitter pill," Tali Wendrow said. "It became pretty clear that we were wrong."
The Wendrow's lawyer, Deb Gordon, said that Aislinn's new facilitator, Scarsella, had had just one hour of unpaid training before starting to work with Aislinn.
"Of all the people who have ever done FC with Aislinn, she knew the least about it," Gordon said.