Mar 9, 2018

Junk science leads to father's wrongful arrest, false accusation of raping his son

Radley Balko
Washington Post
March 8, 2018

During the ritual-sex-abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s, children undergoing recovered memory therapy and other dubious psychological treatment recounted crimes so horrific and depraved, they’re hard to even think about. They described bizarre satanic-themed sex abuse where children were penetrated with knives. They described orgies with adults and children who could barely walk. They described animal and human sacrifice. A big reason why these kids were believed despite the complete lack of physical evidence — if children were murdered, there should have been children in the area who were missing (there were no such missing children); the children who described being raped should have showed signs of sexual abuse (they didn’t); there should have been bloody knives, animal carcasses and other evidence of these rituals (there weren’t) — is that the gruesome details seemed too macabre and perverse to have come from the imagination of kids.

They didn’t, of course. And this is where the whole scandal gets truly horrifying: The gory details came not from the kids, but from the imaginations of the police officers, prosecutors and psychiatrists. They came from the very people who were supposed to protect the kids. Theywere the ones conjuring images of the kids involved in orgies, sacrifice and murder.

I was reminded of all of that when I read this crushing story out of Florida:

After he was accused of molesting his young special needs son, Jose Cordero spent 35 days in a Miami jail and was barred from seeing his family for months.

The allegations did not come directly from the 7-year-old boy, who has autism, speaks little and cannot write on his own. Instead, they came from the child’s elementary school teacher who claimed he relied on a technique called “hand over hand,” guiding the boy’s hands with his own to write down the disturbing details of sexual abuse.

This form of “facilitated” communication is a science that has been largely debunked in the wake of high-profile scandals involving wrongfully accused parents over the past couple decades.

That didn’t stop Hialeah police from arresting Cordero in October. But Miami-Dade prosecutors soon grew suspicious of the teacher’s story.

The boy, working through the teacher with the same technique, later made even more outlandish claims, using words and phrases familiar to adults but not to young children. And when paired with another teacher and specialists, the boy could no longer write a single word, let alone repeat detailed accusations about molestation.

Weeks after the initial arrest in October, prosecutors rushed to get Cordero out of jail while they awaited results of DNA testing. On Wednesday, after those tests came back negative, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office officially dropped the sexual battery case against Cordero.

“Due to significant inconsistencies within the victim’s disclosures coupled with controversial means by which the disclosure was obtained, and a lack of corroborating witnesses, the state would be unable to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt at this time,” according to a final State Attorney’s report released Wednesday.

The conclusion of the case now raises questions whether the Hialeah elementary special-education teacher, Saul Fumero, made up the allegations — and whether the Miami-Dade school district knew he was using a largely discredited method of communication with the autistic child.

And not just discredited. There was never any reason to think this was legitimate in the first place.

James Todd, a psychology professor at Eastern Michigan University who has studied facilitated communication, reviewed the State Attorney’s final report and said the school district still bears responsibility.

“The bottom line is that that school let a teacher use a technique that was never credible and was already scientifically discredited in the early 1990s,” said Todd, who has worked as an expert for people falsely accused in similar cases. …

Researchers and critics deemed facilitated communication nothing more than junk science preying on the hopes of parents who long to communicate with their non-verbal children. Even the American Psychological Association, in 1994, declared there was “no scientifically demonstrated support for its efficacy.”

“There’s not one study in 25 years that holds up to scientific scrutiny that shows that this is a viable means of communication,” said Dr. Howard Shane, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School …

The Miami Herald did find at least one researcher who stands by the method, but this isn’t the first example of a parent being wrongfully accused because of it.

Here’s the part that reminded me of those old ritual-sex-abuse cases:

“Essentially, we and experts in the field believe that the facilitator is ‘writing’ the message and not the student/user,” Kevin McCormick, director of the Palm Beach County school district’s special education department, said in an email.

The teacher also claimed that the boy told him that his mother was involved, and that his sister had “been conditioned to be a sex slave.”

Here again, in the name of protecting children, someone entrusted to take care of a kid has caused irreparable harm by concocting images of sexual abuse that came not from the kid, but from the caretaker. The teacher admitted that he had no training in “facilitated communication,” though if he he did, I’m not sure it would matter — he would have received training in a bogus technique. The article does not say whether the teacher is still working at the school.

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