Holding Educators Accountable For Evidence-Based Practices: Facilitated Communication Isn’t One
By James Todd (in italics) and Kim Wombles
In January of this year, Dr. James Todd and I cowrote a piece on facilitated communication and the Wendrow case, “Facilitated Communication: A Price Too High To Pay.” The tragic case of the Wendrow family, whose daughter received facilitated communication in the school system at the family’s behest and who through facilitation accused her father of raping her, should be a cautionary tale for other families who are desperate for their non-verbal autistic children to communicate. Her parents were placed in jail, the family completely disrupted, with the children removed from their home, the 13-year-old son later interrogated “for two hours without a parent, guardian or lawyer present.” Maybe “interrogated” is not the right word. The police falsely told the child they had video of him participating in the rape of his own sister. If that were not enough, the mother, a research attorney for the same court that prosecuted her, and the father, a painting contractor, lost their careers. The Wendrows paid an incredibly high price for the false hope of facilitated communication.
Brasier and Wisely, who have written a six-part series for the Detroit Free Press, write, “The ordeal didn’t end when it was clear that the girl wasn’t communicating, after all. It didn’t end when a sexual assault exam found no proof of abuse. And it didn’t end when a prosecution witness insisted the abuse never happened.” It continues today: both parents remain unemployed; Julian (the father) stating that “he still draws stares and whispers in crowds.” Their now 18-year-old daughter, with the false hope of FC removed, has “the receptive language skills of a child 1 year and 11 months of age” just as I testified in court. It is probably no consolation to the Wendrows that they are slightly better off than John Pinnington in England. Accused of abuse through FC in 2001 but never charged or convicted, Pinnington is not only unemployable, he remains on a sex offender registry due to a UK High Court ruling to accept as evidence unsubstantiated allegations made through a discredited technique. In other words, like the Michigan court, the UK High Court ignored scientific evidence in order to accept facilitated communication as valid. Pinnington’s attorney described his situation as Orwellian. A designation equally applicable to the Wendrows’ experiences–unless one is more fond of Kafka. Then “Kafkaesque” might do as well.
Parents of special-needs children are faced with daunting challenges. Not only must they provide constant care and attention for their children, they must navigate medical systems designed to give as little support and information as possible and educational systems that still, despite IDEA, are often bureaucratic nightmares in order to get their children the services needed to give them the best chance at an independent life. On top of all that, they are hit from all sides by a coalition of well-meaning parent-enthusiasts, clever con artists, and credulous toadies offering claims of amazing success for the most unlikely, unsubstantiated, and even dangerous “treatments.” Desperation is a powerful sauce for the hungry. But simply not being prepared to effectively see through the blizzard of claims adds to the challenges. What does “methylation” mean anyway? Why would a prestigious university like Syracuse tolerate, much less champion, an “Institute” devoted to a pseudoscientific intervention that simply does not work as its proponents claim? He sounds so genuine, this Wakefield fellow! Jenny’s a mother, a “mommy warrior.” She would never let anyone harm a child! It isn’t any wonder that parents turn to these smiling and often impressively credentialed charlatans and their offers of hope. Exactly as the Wendrows did, with their severely affected daughter who simply did not seem to respond to anything else: “Beginning in middle school, they pushed FC, threatening to sue the school district if it didn’t hire a full-time aide to facilitate their daughter. They requested that she be placed in mainstream classes. On her own, the girl couldn’t match the word ‘cat’ to a picture of a cat, draw a circle or count to five.”
“The Wendrows were introduced to FC in 2004 by Dr. Sandra McClennen, a retired education professor from Eastern Michigan University who had been working with their daughter for three years. She trained the girl to use FC, a highly controversial method through which autistic people are said to communicate using a keyboard, aided by another person.”
Actually, McClennen did not train the Wendrow’s daughter as so much as to sit and let FC be done. A report McClennen submitted to the school claimed that the girl wrote in sentences and did mathematics the very first time McClennen did FC with her. No training was necessary. The girl was a “natural.” It was another miracle from a miracle worker whose reputation in Michigan was already well established, and whose proficiency in getting from FC exactly what the family is looking for seems almost as miraculous the the FC itself. Under the heading “Tears of Joy,”The Northern Michigan Express newspaper tells us how McClennen elicited “I love mom” from another family’s 23-year-old daughter the very first time facilitation was used, and how the woman’s FC-based literacy convinced a court to appoint her as her own guardian. With Sandra McClennen Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist (MI #6301001694), University Professor as their latter day Anne Sullivan, why should the Wendrows not believe that FC — despite being widely debunked by educators and researchers — would unlock hidden literacy in their mute daughter?
As if being guided to the false hope that their daughter wasn’t as severely disabled as she was, the person who acted as facilitator should never have been the girl’s aide: “Scarsella, who holds a high school diploma, completed one hour of facilitator training the summer before. She said in a deposition that she had ‘no idea’ whether what the girl was typing was true and had no interest in trying to verify it. And she said she didn’t know anything about autism.” One of the many, many ironies of the case was that I (James Todd), the FC critic and witness for the defense, had more formal training in FC than the girl’s facilitators. But central to the unfolding events was the testimony by McClennen that it was not FC that was bad, but the facilitator who was incompetent. What else could McClennen say, a licensed psychologist who had taken the stand on behalf of the prosecution against her own trusting clients? Admit to blatant and now life-shattering malpractice? But, McClennen’s argument was the one that the court eventually adopted when it declared FC to be “interpretation.” By accepting McClennen’s account, the court could throw out all the science–interpretation in itself is not a challengeable scientific technique–and keep the more than obviously railroaded family on the tracks to preliminary hearing and potentially a trial.
What’s the relevance of repeatedly pointing out that McClennen is a credentialed academic? A new article by Brian J. Gorman, Catherine J. Wynne, Christopher J. Morse, and James T. Todd, “Psychology and Law in the Classroom: How the use of Clinical Fads in the Classroom may Awaken the Educational Malpractice Claim,” raises the issue of educational malpractice claims and uses the thoroughly discredited and debunked facilitated communication to highlight the need for educators to be held accountable for the use of “harmful, scientifically rejected practices in the classroom.” Facilitated communication was one of the things McClennen espoused in her teaching while on the faculty of the Eastern Michigan University Special Education Department, and continued to espouse after her retirement when she occasionally taught a class required for Michigan Special Educators seeking what was then called the “Autism Certification Endorsement.” Should we presume that her course is changed any now that it is being taught at Rutgers University? Does Rutgers care?
Given that Gorman et al. raises the issue of schools and educators being held legally accountable for using non-evidence based practices, one wonders if, in the future, schools will be better able to withstand parental pressure and universities will find it in their interest to avoid offering courses in demonstrably dangerous pseudoscience. In the Wendrow case, the school did not suggest FC; the Wendrows wanted it. Eastern Michigan did not ask for FC to be taught. It was injected into the curriculum. Why did the school bow to the Wendrow’s demands that FC be used (and why does having a special needs child convey more power to the parents to demand disproven methods than parents of traditional students?)? Why did Eastern, and now apparently Rutgers, not suggest a more conventional autism course? Academic freedom, as typically conceived, does not extend to knowingly teaching falsehoods. According to the Detroit Free Press, “Officials also testified in a lawsuit that they were aware FC didn’t meet the Michigan Department of Education’s standards that require all communication methods used in schools to be scientifically valid. The district declined to use FC with the other 20 nonverbal students in the district, specifically because it did not meet standards, records show. Veronica Burke, the district’s classroom coordinator for special services, said in a deposition that she implemented FC for the Wendrows’ daughter on the orders of a superintendent who has since left.” If the evidence of the past and present is a guide, the universities haven’t even given it a fraction of the thought to FC that the school did in its progression from reluctant acquiescence to full embrace.
Perhaps the acceptance of legal grounds for educational malpractice claims will help schools withstand the pressures of parents desperate to help their disabled children, and help universities prevent their good reputations being attached to bad interventions. Gorman et al. close their article with these thoughts: “It is also evident that the recognition of the integrity of education tort theory will most likely have a chilling effect on education. The chill, however, will likely be limited to behavior risking a conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of students.” One can even hope that it will get these dubious (at best) treatments out of higher education, as well, where future special education teachers can be (and are) indoctrinated in their use (Syracuse University’s Institute on Communication and Inclusion).
Gorman, B.J., Wynne, C.J., Morse, C.J.,&Todd, J.T. (2011). Psychology and law in the classroom: How the use of clinical fads in the classroom may awaken the educational malpractice claim. Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, 2011(1), 29-50.
**Having been informed in semi-private communication that this article was confusing, I offer the following potentially unnecessary clarification to readers who hung around all the way to the end:
I would grant that the article is complex; intertwining the Wendrow case, the role of the credentialed professional who introduced them to FC which led to their predicament, and the new journal article making a case that educational malpractice cases may be potentially successfully argued under the Frye standard; and could therefore consequently be misread.
I would suggest that if the article had to be reduced to a simplistic summary that it would be this: Perhaps if schools can be held negligent for USING scientifically-invalidated methods such as FC with special needs (and other students), the bonus to this would be that universities will be less likely to cash in on discredited but lucrative methods and create departments that teach how to use scientifically-invalidated methods like Syracuse University has.
It is my hope that if Dr. Todd and I were in any way too obscure, that this addendum clarifies and unifies the various threads of the piece.