Michigan Family Alleges Harrowing Misconduct by Prosecutors, Police

Family outraged when dad jailed, kids removed over unfounded abuse allegations.

January 5, 2012, 4:30 PM

Jan. 6, 2012 — -- 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.

PHOTOS: Family Outraged After Dad Jailed, Kids Taken Away Over Unfounded Abuse Allegations

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.

Red Flags Don't Stop Investigation

But while the Wendrows were ready to give up on Scarsella and facilitated communication, investigators weren't. The Wendrows allege that in their zeal to prosecute, investigators missed key red flags.

"This was, 'I have a charge, this guy's guilty. We are going to set about trying to hang him. Don't bother us with facts,'" Gordon said.

In that first interview with Aislinn and Scarsella, the girl seemed to make telling mistakes -- through Scarsella, Aislinn typed the wrong names for both her grandmother and the family dog.

Undeterred, investigators searched the Wendrows' home for the naked pictures Aislinn had supposedly alleged her father had taken. They found nothing.

Investigators took Aislinn for a medical exam. A nurse found "no acute injury."

Meanwhile, others questioned the heart of the case -- that Aislinn was able to communicate at all.

Braser said that as soon as her first story on the Wendrows was published, she got a call from one of Aislinn's former teachers.

"She said, 'There is no way that child is able to type, and I said, 'That's not what the police and prosecutors are saying,'" Braser told "20/20." "She said, 'If you said to Aislinn point to the sky, the child would not be able to do it.'"

Chris Cuomo met with Aislinn and asked her to point to the letter "B." This time, there was no facilitator to help her -- and Aislinn couldn't correctly identify the letter.

"Once you admit that Aislinn Wendrow couldn't read, then the next, only logical conclusion is, 'Well then she never could have said anything through FC...she couldn't have typed,'" Gordon said.

It all led to a disturbing conclusion -- one that scientists had been reaching for years, long before the Wendrow case: Facilitated communication is fake.

Studies had found repeatedly that children using facilitated communication weren't actually revealing their inner thoughts. Facilitators were typing for them, either consciously or unconsciously, leading the children's hands like a psychic over a Ouija board.

But the red flags in the case didn't stop the investigation. While it proceeded, Aislinn and her younger brother Ian were left in juvenile homes, allowed no contact with their parents.

"I thought I was feeling what I would've felt if they had actually died. I felt that depth of loss," Tali Wendrow said. "I didn't know if I would see them again."

Police Mislead Teenage Boy During Tearful Questioning

Ian, 13, wasn't just taken from his home -- he was also brought in for police questioning without the consent of an adult.

Footage of his police interview at West Bloomfield police headquarters show a detective named Joseph Brusseau questioning Ian for more than an hour.

"It's obvious you know what happened between you and your sister. There's no doubt about it," he told the boy.

Brusseau lied to Ian when he told the young boy that he had just received a phone call confirming that they had concrete evidence against his father beyond Aislinn's statements. As Brusseau pressed Ian for details again and again, the pressure started to break the young boy down, bringing him to tears.

And when Brousseau didn't get the answers he was looking for, he turned hostile.

"You're not a good liar, buddy," he told Ian.

Ian eventually offered the only information he could think of -- that his father has showered with Aislinn because she couldn't wash herself. Ian also said his dad would joke around with him by flashing him.

Brusseau's report went into detail about the showering and flashing, but said little about Ian's repeated denial that he witnessed any abuse.

Brusseau declined to speak to "20/20." In sworn testimony, Brusseau later described his misleading statement to Ian as "tactics" necessary to get the boy to reveal what he knew.

Ian and Aislinn were both shuffled from home to home, with Ian eventually placed in a juvenile facility in Pontiac, Mich.

"I was moved in with kids who were like at the time 17, 18," Ian said. "(They were) much older than me, who had actually been abused...It was scary."

Tali Wendrow was under strict orders not to have any contact with her son. When Ian called her, she hung up.

"I was so afraid if they somehow found out I'd had contact with him it'd all be over," she remembered. "I just sobbed."

Father Put in Solitary Confinement

On Dec. 5, 2007, eight days after the sex abuse allegations surfaced, police arrested both Tali Wendrow and her husband, Julian. Tali Wendrow was released on bail and sent home with a tracking device, but her husband wasn't as lucky -- Julian Wendrow was placed in the Oakland County jail. He remained there for the next 80 days, most of that time in solitary confinment.

The charges Julian Wendrow faced brought with them a potential 75-year jail sentence.

The man who sent Wendrow to jail, Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca would later say in a sworn deposition that his office was prosecuting a legitimate charge that Wendrow was abusing his daughter.

"I had an opinion which was that there was abuse in the house," he said in the deposition.

Facilitated Communication: Fake?

Despite questions about the legitimacy of facilitated communication, Gorcyca found it hard to believe that facilitator, Cindy Scarsella, was just making up the accusations.

"If someone is just holding the wrist or elbow I mean and they're leading....that means they're lying for the person," he said. "I mean, that seems to me a little farfetched."

But it wouldn't be the first time questions were raised about whether a facilitator had made up sex abuse allegations. As Hugh Downs reported for "20/20" in 1994, a facilitator in Maine was found to have concocted sex abuse allegations on behalf of a girl she thought she was helping. That facilitator later apologized to the girl's family.

Howard Shane, who runs a communication center for autistic children at Children's Hospital Boston, said he's been involved in a dozen cases in which parents have faced troubling, false accusations that surfaced through facilitated communication.

Shane, who has studied this phenomenon, said his best explanation of what is going on is something he calls the savior effect.

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

The Wendrows would have a chance to put the legitimacy of facilitated communication on trial during a court hearing. A judge ordered a special hearing during which Aislinn would answer questions that her facilitator, Cindy Scarsella, couldn't hear, assuring that the answers could only come from Aislinn. While facilitating in the past, Scarsella had always been present for the questions.

To block out the sound, prosecutors suggested Scarsella wear headphones that they had on hand. Shane, who was in the courtroom at the time, immediately objected, recognizing that the headphones prosecutors wanted to use to block out the sound would in fact would make it easier to hear the questions. The headphones were designed to only block ambient noise.

Shane alerted the court of the problem.

"If I hadn't been there, they would've proceeded. The facilitator would've heard the question and it would've looked like she was typing the answer, and I think it would've been the end," Shane said. "I think (Julian Wendrow) would probably be in jail today."

The judge rejected the headphones and ordered Scarsella sent out of the courtroom each time a question was asked. When she returned, the results were dramatic. Her responses to simple questions like "are you a boy or a girl?" were either gibberish or incorrect attempts at an answer.

The Wendrows felt it was obvious the case has fallen apart, but the prosecution saw it differently when Scarsella helped Aislinn type "I am afrid." Prosecutors were convinced this meant Aislinn was afraid of her father and that's why she had answered the other questions as she had.

But Shane said it was Scarsella who was afraid.

"When she was unable to answer, she resorted to the strategy I'd seen several times before. I'm afraid, and didn't want to respond," he said.

Julian Wendrow was sent back to solitary confinement. The case dragged on for another month before the charges against him were eventually dropped, though prosecutors claimed they were doing so only because Aislinn would no longer cooperate.

No Apologies

The family was finally reunited, but the emotional impact of the ordeal lingered. For six months, Aislinn would become frantic if her father was out of her sight for too long, the family said.

"She was clearly traumatized by it and we have no way of knowing how, to what extent and how to fix that," Tali Wendrow said.

After his harrowing police interrogation, Ian began seeing a therapist.

"They had done a really good number on my head," he said.

With damage done to their reputations and relationships, the Wendrows sued the police, prosecutors, their daughter's school district and state agencies involved in the case. They alleged 61 different counts of misconduct.

Before the case went to court, the police department responsible for Ian's interview settled for $1.8 million without admitting wrongdoing. But the prosecutor's office was defiant; Gorcyca insisted he did nothing wrong and also that his office was, under the law, immune from liability

"There's a legal body of case law out there that says as long as you're wearing your prosecutor hat, you can say and do anything and you're protected," Gordon, the Wendrows' lawyer, said.

The judge in the lawsuit called the investigation against the Wendrows a "runaway train" but nonetheless accepted prosecutors' immunity claims and dropped most of the civil charges against them.

Gorcyca, who is now in private practice, declined requests for an interview from "20/20" but did speak in 2009 about the Wendrow case to The National Law Journal. When asked if the Wendrows deserved an apology, he responded, "Over my dead body."

Cindy Scarsella, who now works at a clothing store at a shopping mall, also declined to speak with "20/20." In sworn testimony, Scarsella has denied she ever intentionally made up anything she helped Aislinn to type.

Today, the Wendrows are awaiting a trial on the claims that the judge has not dismissed.

The family says their lives will never be the same. The stigma of the allegations hasn't gone away, and some will always be suspicious.

Julian Wendrow said he'd like an apology, but "what I would really like is for the system to be fixed."

"I don't want this to happen to anybody else. Somebody can say something -- can misconstrue, make an allegation...and before you can blink, you are in a cauldron of chaos."

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