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

Facilitated communication has a long history of controversy.

January 2, 2012, 1:28 PM

Jan. 7, 2012 — -- Two decades after unfounded sexual abuse allegations and a controversial autism communication tool turned her family's life upside down, Suzette Wheaton is angry to hear that another family has found itself in similar straits.

"It still makes me mad that something like that can happen," Wheaton, now 55, told "It has happened to a lot of people and it's just aggravating that something like that can happen to a family and just destroy them."

In the early 1990s, the Wheatons were part of a disturbing trend: families whose autistic children accused them of sexual abuse -- allegations leveled through a technique called facilitated communication.

The technique involves a trained person called a facilitator, who holds a disabled person's arm while they type on a keyboard. But in case after case, charges against accused parents were dropped or dismissed and questions were raised about whether facilitators were, in fact, guiding their young clients to type the unthinkable accusations.

The cases caught the attention of the American Psychological Association. In 1994, the association deemed the technique an "unproved communicative procedure with no scientifically demonstrated support for its efficacy," a position it continues to stand behind today.

In the decade and a half that followed, the controversy seemed to die down. That changed in 2007, when prosecutors in Oakland County, Mich. leveled charges against a husband and wife when allegations emerged through facilitated communication. In this case, an autistic teenage girl named Aislinn typed out accusations similar to many of those earlier cases, that her father, Julian Wendrow, had sexually abused her.

Julian Wendrow was arrested, but prosecutors later dropped the charges against him, arguing that his daughter had become uncooperative. The Wendrows, meanwhile, said that a courtroom hearing testing their daughter's use of FC proved that the technique wasn't working for Aislinn and that girl's facilitator had made up the allegations.

The family, which was profiled on Friday's "20/20," is now suing law enforcement authorities and others involved in the case. Many allegations were dismissed because of immunity laws but others are yet to be adjudicated. The police department involved in the case settled with the family for $1.8 million with no admission of wrongdoing.

'When It's Over, It's Over'

Speech pathologist Howard Shane, of Children's Hospital Boston, an ardent critic of facilitated communication, was involved in the Wheaton's case as well as several other of the 1990s FC sex abuse cases. When he was brought in to testify in the Wendrow case, Shane remembered a prosecutor questioning his expertise, noting that it had been 15 years since he had researched FC.

Shane said he hadn't continued research on facilitated communication for a reason.

"It'd be like suggesting that we continue to study cold fusion or bloodletting," Shane said. "When it's over, it's over."

In the 1992 Wheaton case, Betsy Wheaton, a 16-year-old autistic girl, supposedly used facilitated communication to accuse her father and brother of sexual abuse. Shane consulted in the case and developed a test that ultimately convinced Wheaton's facilitator that she, not Betsy, had concocted the sex abuse allegations.

The test, which Shane has used in other sex abuse cases involving FC, hinged on pictures: Shane would show one picture to Janyce Boynton, the facilitator, and a different picture to Betsy. Then Betsy, with Boynton's help, was asked to type what she had seen.

In every instance, the word typed was not what Betsy had seen but what Boynton had seen.

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.

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