CHARLOTTETOWN – The Opposition in P.E.I. is calling for an inquiry into the bizarre case of a non-verbal, autistic woman whose caregivers at a group home claimed she had accused her father of sexual assault.
The father was never charged, but the case made national headlines in March when a judge concluded the province acted in a “deplorable” manner by failing to conduct an investigation into the source of the allegations.
The Crown dropped the case — six months after the father was arrested and barred from seeing his daughter — when a psychologist assessed the woman’s ability to communicate via a widely disputed method known as facilitated communication (FC).
The psychologist concluded the 35-year-old woman, who has the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old, could not have made the allegations attributed to her in January 2015.
The P.E.I. Supreme Court, in a decision released in March, said the Health Department and the group home repeatedly ignored the parents’ attempts to have their daughter’s communication skills independently assessed.
The court awarded the couple $61,000 to cover part of their court costs, which they say have risen beyond $200,000.
The Canadian Press is not identifying the family because of the nature of the allegations and the young woman’s vulnerable state.
Progressive Conservative health critic James Aylward said Monday the province should immediately order all government-assisted agencies to stop using facilitated communication.
An inquiry is needed to determine how this “deeply troubling” case was handled, and to make sure no other family endures a similar ordeal, he said.
“(An inquiry) is one of the only mechanisms we have right now to get to the root issue of how this transpired, and how a family was put through such a nightmare,” he said.
“Let’s find out what the contributing factors were here … Let’s do research. Let’s call witnesses in, interview these people and find out … why these accusations came forward. I find this deplorable that this happened in this day and age.”
The province’s health minister, Robert Henderson, did not respond to a request for an interview.
A woman at the group home, operated by Queens County Residential Services in Charlottetown, directed questions to executive director Bill Lawlor. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
However, three staff members, a manager and an adult protection worker produced affidavits for the earlier court case, saying they all believed the woman could communicate through FC.
First introduced to North America in the early 1990s, FC was initially hailed as a breakthrough. The technique involves an aide holding the user’s wrist, finger or arm as they point to letters or type on a keyboard.
“I do not point to the letters or symbols myself, rather (the woman) holds my hand and then she points herself to the letter or symbol with her index finger,” says an affidavit from staff member Jennifer Hendricken.
“I believe that (the woman) has the ability to facilitate on her own; however, she has not done so and I believe has grown accustomed to holding someone’s hand. I believe that people with autism generally … find the sensation of pressure to provide a level of control or stabilizes her hand.”
As well, Hendricken cited examples of previously unknown information she had gleaned through FC that she said later proved to be accurate.
Aylward said he was troubled by the use of FC in the light of professional recommendations against it.
“When we’re talking about something as serious as this — potential communication with a non-verbal individual — we need to make sure that there is science (behind it) as a proven, peer-reviewed tool,” he said.
Laurie Mawlam, executive director of Autism Canada, said she couldn’t comment on what happened in P.E.I., but she took aim at the use of FC in a criminal case.
“This is an unfortunate case,” she said in an emailed statement. “One would hope an alleged crime would never be brought forward based on evidence from facilitated communication alone.”
A spokeswoman for the Autism Society of P.E.I. said the group has not taken a position on FC.
She said the group would prefer not to comment on the case, saying FC is used mainly by adults, and the society deals mostly with children. The spokeswoman said she had no clear indication how many people were using FC on the Island.
Eastern Michigan University Prof. James Todd, a longtime critic of FC, has said there are no studies using proper scientific standards that show the procedure works.
Still, supporters of FC say the method works.
The Institute on Communication and Inclusion at Syracuse University in Upstate New York says problems with FC are typically caused by failure to adhere to best practices.
The institute has said facilitators must be taught how to confirm authorship. As well, it says that FC is only a training method.
“The goal is always a fading of that (physical) support toward independent access of a device,” the institute said in a statement released last fall.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax