Thursday, March 27, 2008

Autistic girl's brother becomes collateral damage in abuse case

The Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson devoted two columns (here and here) to the recently dismissed abuse case against the father of an autistic girl. The 14-year old girl, who is unable to speak, accused her father of rape. She did this using facilitated communication in which a school aide assisted her in typing out messages on a keyboard. Testimony obtained through Facilitated Communication has repeatedly been shown to be unreliable as evidence in court. Messages obtained through this method have been shown to originate with the facilitator rather than the autistic person.

The girl's younger brother, who has a milder form of autism called Asperger's syndrome, was also drawn into the case when he was questioned by an investigator without his lawyer present and under circumstances which were considered by experts to be inappropriate and damaging to the boy.

Videotapes were made of the interrogation and excerpts are available on-line.

The 13-year-old brother was questioned by a police detective in early December 2007 after his father was arrested for allegedly raping his sister; his mother was charged with allowing the abuse to happen. The boy and his sister had been placed in foster homes. The interrogator, a police detective, appears to have ignored Michigan child abuse laws which prescribe rules for questioning juveniles in sexual abuse cases. The rules warn investigators to avoid threats, promises, and leading questions, but the investigator used all of those things during his interrogation. As Brian Dickerson reports:

For nearly an hour, Detective Joseph Brousseau had grilled the boy about accusations that he and his autistic sister had been sexually molested by their father.

No, the boy insisted, he'd seen nothing to support the detective's lurid suspicions. Three times, he offered to take a lie detector test.

But Brousseau hammered away, challenging the boy's honesty, his manliness, his loyalty to his disabled sister.

Again and again, the detective told the boy his body language betrayed the burden of a terrible secret.

"What if I told you that one of those videotapes confiscated from your parents' house had you in it?" the detective asked suddenly.

The 13-year-old straightened. "Was it me doing something sexually?"

"I don't think I'd be bringing it up if it wasn't," Brousseau answered. "That's what I'm trying to tell you -- it's going to come out."

If it were merely what it purported to be -- the disclosure of a deviant father's treachery -- the videotaped exchange would be excruciating enough to watch.

But the truth is a good deal uglier than that.

Charges have been dropped. In fact, prosecutors now concede, much of what Brousseau told the boy during his Dec. 4 interrogation was a fabrication.

The damage to the family and especially to the disabled 13-year old brother in this terribly flawed case is incalculable, but a lawsuit by the family is a possibility.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Michigan abuse case against father of autistic teenager dismissed

The Detroit Free Press, on March 11 and March 12, 2008, reported that a judge has dismissed all charges against a West Bloomfield, Michigan man who was accused of raping his 15-year-old autistic daughter. The accusations were supposedly made by the girl through a highly controversial method called facilitated communication. The girl, who is unable to talk, was assisted by a teacher's aide in typing out messages on a keyboard. At a hearing in February, the girl was unable to answer any questions in court when the teacher's aide was prevented from hearing the questions being asked. Experts testified that in cases like this, the messages are consciously or unconsciously those of the facilitator and not the autistic person.

The case against the girl's mother for not stopping the rapes has also been dismissed.

While defense attorneys said there was never any basis for believing the abuse had occurred, the prosecutors said they decided to ask for a dismissal in the case because the girl refused to testify. Assistant prosecutors said they met with the girl four times. In one interview, the girl said, through her teacher's aide and by pointing at yes-no cards, that she was afraid of her father and did not want to testify. The interview was not taped, however, and there was no written record.

According to the attorney for the girl's mother, when the girl was reunited with her father, she ran into his arms and could not stop hugging him. The girl had spent four months in foster care and her father 80 days in jail.

In a separate civil case that sought to remove both the girl and her brother from their parents, a judge ordered the children returned to their parents.