Not Just the Wendrows: Sex Abuse Cases Dismissed After Facilitated Communication


Boynton spoke to "20/20" in 1994. She told Hugh Downs she was devastated and confused by the test results.

"I had no explanation for that," she said. Boynton would come to the conclusion that facilitated communication didn't work and asked authorities at her school to stop using it. With the help of "20/20," she also arranged a meeting with the Wheatons and apologized to the family.

In an interview with Friday, Boynton, now 49, said she was sad to hear of the Wendrow case. She said that when she spoke out in the 1990s, she hoped it would bring a stop to the use of facilitated communication.

"I think people's intentions are really good, but what they're doing is really damaging," she said. "I'm sad that other people didn't take the initiative to question what they were doing."

Why would any facilitator make up such serious allegations?

Shane said that a facilitator's behavior isn't malicious but rather the result of a bizarre psychological phenomenon he called the "savior effect": Facilitators want to help so much, they don't realize they are making up what they're typing.

"If you think that you are really going to help someone, that alone drives to put reality aside," he said.

Going to Court

At least two families entangled in unfounded sex abuse allegations linked to FC in the 1990s have sued law enforcement authorities as well as Douglas Bilken, the Syracuse University professor who introduced FC to the U.S. The lawsuits were both later dismissed but in 1997, in a separate case, a New York family won $750,000 after a jury found Orange County, N.Y., officials liable for failing to properly train its employees to "use the difficult and unproven technique of facilitated communication," according to The New York Law Journal.

In that case, an 11-year-old girl was removed from her home after she typed out sex abuse allegations with the help of a teacher. After being shown a demonstration of FC, a judge was not convinced the girl was in fact communicating through the technique and the girl was reunited with her parents.

There has been at least one case of an abuse conviction in which initial abuse allegations surfaced through facilitated communication. In 1993, a man was convicted of abusing an 11-year-old facilitated communication user at Heartspring, a special needs center in Witchita, Kan. The man's conviction was upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court, though Heartspring later stopped using facilitated communication.

"In our research studies we never found a single child who was actually able to communicate" with a facilitator, then-Heartspring president Jack Andrews told an Illinois newspaper in 1997.

Biklen, who was promoted to be dean of Syracuse University's School of Education in 2005, continues to champion facilitated communication. He said in a recent interview with that ultimately the goal of facilitated communication is "to get people to be able to communicate independent of physical support." Some, he said, have accomplished that and can even say words as they type them. He also cited a 1996 study that tested 43 students using facilitated communication and found that some did give accurate answers to questions that their facilitators were blocked from hearing.

Biklen said that in the case of sex abuse allegations, it is crucial that a new facilitator without knowledge of the prior allegations be brought in to help the alleged victims communicate. That, he said, can confirm whether the alleged victim's statements are truly her own.

Then, he said, "you depend on a court determine the veracity."

In the Wendrow case, Aislinn Wendrow's parents requested that a new facilitator be brought in for Aislinn's questioning, but that never happened. (Read more here.)

Shane said the 1996 study cited by Biklen and other studies supporting facilitated communication are flawed and use methods that don't meet the standards of scientific rigor. And he said those who Biklen claims can now communicate independently still have facilitators who touch their shoulders or offer other support.

Suzette Wheaton, of Maine, said it took years for her and her husband to overcome the trauma of their 1992 ordeal. Her son, who died 10 years ago, never let go of the anger he felt over how he was treated, Wheaton said.

Wheaton's daughter, Betsy, now 35, attends a treatment program for developmentally disabled adults and children but her communication abilities, Suzette Wheaton said, are "nonexistent."

Even before the sexual abuse allegations surfaced against her husband and son, Wheaton said she had her doubts that facilitated communication was truly working for her daughter.

"She talked a little bit when she was little, but she never learned how to read, never learned how to write or spell," Wheaton said. "It didn't take us any time to believe that it wasn't real."

ABC News' Thomas Berman contributed to this report.

Watch the full episode here.

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