Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Michigan parents settle lawsuit involving facilitated communication

The parents of an autistic girl settled a lawsuit against the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, police department last month for $1.8 million, according to an article in the Detroit Free Press.

Over three years ago, the father was arrested and accused of raping his 14-year-old autistic daughter based on accusations made through a widely discredited method called facilitated communication (FC). A facilitator, in this case a teacher's aide, guided the girl's hand over a keyboard while the girl supposedly typed out messages accusing her father of raping her repeatedly since she was seven years old. The father spent 80 days in jail and the mother was put on an electronic tether. The girl and her 13-year-old brother who has a milder form of autism were placed in foster care. The police, in a video-taped interview, tried to browbeat the brother into admitting that he too had been molested by his father. He was told that the police had video tapes showing this to be true, a story that turned out to be entirely fabricated.

In a related article, the Free Press reports that the parents' lawsuit against the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, the Walled Lake Consolidated School District and the Michigan Department of Human Services is still under consideration. Although the Oakland County lawyer argues for governmental immunity for his clients, the District Court Judge finds the facts in the case troubling.

The facts are indeed troubling:

  • There was no physical evidence that a rape had taken place.
  • The prosecution and the judge in the case accepted the girl's statements through FC as valid even though she functioned at the level of a two-year-old and did not talk. Even the prosecution's witness called to defend FC as a valid form of communication, did not believe the girl's charges and had warned the prosecution that her statements should be validated independently.
  • The girl's brother was interviewed by the police without notifying his guardian and without a parent or attorney present.
  • The primary objection to FC is that the communication is usually that of the facilitator and not the person who is being facilitated. The court still treated the girl's statements as evidence of a crime, reliable enough to have the father thrown in jail for 80 days.The case was dismissed after the girl was unable to answer even simple questions when her facilitator could not hear the questions being asked. 
  • When the case was dismissed, the prosecution did not admit that they were wrong. Instead they said that the girl refused to testify because she was afraid.

We may never know the motivation for the actions of the prosecutor's office, the police department, and the school district. At least the parents have some compensation for this travesty that almost destroyed their lives.

Here are earlier posts on this case. MSNBC in 2009 had a blogpost called "Dark shadows loom over facilitated talk" which includes the Michigan case. It also gives a general overview of the origins of FC.

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