Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sexual abuse: truth and consequences, part 1

This post is very long, but I find that editing it is difficult. It wades into a highly controversial issue that has probably taken a few years off my life:  should we always believe accusations of childhood sexual abuse, even when their source is potentially unreliable?

The article below (I've had to put it in a separate post because the line-spacing in THIS post got so hopelessly buggered-up) is based on an enthralling documentary on ABC TV's 20-20 about Aislinn Wendrow, a young autistic woman who supposedly made allegations of sexual abuse against her father. I say "supposedly" because the allegations came about in a very strange and convoluted way. Severely disabled and non-verbal, Aislinn's entire education up to college level had been accomplished by a method in which her hand was guided over a keyboard by a practitioner trained in "facilitated communication".

There is a fey mysterious quality to Aislinn, as if she dwells in a different kind of reality, one more subtle than that which can be punched out on a keyboard. Nevertheless, the family saw the new method as a blessing and a breakthrough, tapping into their daughter's hidden intellectual gifts and feelings. Then came the baffling accusations of abuse, a horrifying ordeal in which the girl's father was placed in solitary confinement for nearly three months without being convicted of anything.  Though he was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing, the family was left devastated and completely disillusioned with what must have seemed like an educational boondoggle.

Facilitated communication is a slippery slope. In theory, it should (or at least could) work: the practitioner guides the disabled person's hand, supposedly without coercion or force, assisting them in typing out their thoughts and allowing them to communicate, sometimes for the first time. In spite of the fact that it does not stand up to any sort of scientific testing, some parents of disabled children are still hanging on to the method with bulldog tenacity. Though one can hardly blame them for trying to maintain their hope, I can't help but be reminded of the "theory" that childhood vaccines cause autism.

This is one of those wild ideas that was thrown out there and took hold in the popular imagination. The doctor who originally published the idea has since been completely discredited and his paper withdrawn. But never mind: celebrity Moms, most notably ex-Playboy centrefold Jenny McCarthy, had already embraced the idea and written several "heartwarming" books about it. The public loves heartwarming and wants to believe, even in the face of the facts.

McCarthy believes some autistic kids (including her son) are
"indigo" or "crystal" children with unique psychic abilities. This appreciation seems to fly in the face of her fury over vaccinations: would she prefer her son be not-so-special? If he had been just an ordinary kid, at least three bestsellers never would have been written (or, using another psychic metaphor, "ghostwritten").

But back to the topic at hand. For reasons I don't need to explain, the issue of childhood sexual abuse is like a quagmire in a minefield. I know that the truth can get buried, and victims can be flipped around into perpetrators, people who "destroyed the family" by even thinking that their parents might have abused them. The so-called False Memory Syndrome movement in the early '90s (which, mysteriously, you don't hear about any more) made my teeth ache. I couldn't help but see perpetrators hiding out in this organization, which after all was nothing but a lobby group with no valid research to back up their claims.

But if you try hard enough, and search long enough, you'll find something that passes for proof. People are incredibly stubborn about their beliefs, and many of them can't or won't admit they are wrong.

Once the pendulum swings one way, it can swing forcefully the other way, knocking whole families over for life. False Memory Syndrome reminded me of high school physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the early '90s there was an unprecedented outpouring of sexual abuse stories in the media, particularly on talk shows where hosts like Ricki Lake and Sally Jesse Raphael sat transfixed by extreme stories of multiple personality caused by Satanic ritual abuse.

Then, bingo-boingo, here comes "FMS" to knock the pendulum
violently the other way. Some women (including some I knew personally) were so relieved to put down their emotional burden that they recanted accusations which I am convinced were valid.

But how many were valid? How many imagined or coerced? How
many "implanted" by unscrupulous therapists? Dear God, have we
learned nothing at all? For here it comes again, the idea that someone can concoct traumatic memories and make them seem real. The most disturbing element, in my mind, is that these "facilitators" don't necessarily set out to do harm. Their unconscious motivation to help their client leads them to put words in their mouths and ideas in their heads, up to and including sexual abuse which never took place.

How could this possibly work? It could. It's kind of like a ouija board. That pointer isn't going anywhere without the touch of human hands.

I am sure I don't have the last word on this contentious issue, but it has affected my family and will continue to affect me for the rest of my life.  Aislinn's story is completely enthralling, and provides one more piece in an increasingly baffling, disturbing puzzle.

Sexual abuse: truth and consequences, part 2

Michigan Family Alleges Harrowing Misconduct by Prosecutors, Police

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.

Those dreams were soon replaced by a nightmare. In high school, Aislinn was paired with a new facilitator. 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 allegations were just horrific," said Lori Brasier, who covered the Wendrow's story for The Detroit Free Press. It was "the kind of story, you know, it would keep you up at night." (Read The Detroit Free Press' coverage of the Wendrow story here.)

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.

Two days after the initial allegations, Aislinn was brought to a special county agency to meet with investigators. By her side was the same facilitator with whom she supposedly typed her initial sex abuse allegations, 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 the facilitator'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. But Aislinn also seemed to make telling mistakes -- through the facilitator, Aislinn typed the wrong names for both her grandmother and the family dog.

The sex abuse allegations were doubly painful for the Wendrows. Knowing the allegations of horrific abuse through facilitated 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."

Red Flags Don't Stop Investigation

But while the Wendrows were ready to give up on facilitated communication, investigators weren't.

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 confinement.

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,'" the Wendrows' attorney, Deb Gordon said.

The charges against Julian Wendrow were later dropped.