Friday, April 24, 2015
For me, a chilling moment in the trial of State of Iowa v. Henry Rayhons came during the prosecution's case-in-chief, with the reported testimony of a physician at Mrs. Rayhons' nursing home. According to the coverage of the trial, the doctor testified that based on her decreasing score on the BIMS (Brief Interview for Mental Status), he determined Donna Rayhons lacked the cognitive ability to give consent to sex. In contrast, a defense expert was reported to have testified it was a "medical mistake" to have used such minimal evaluations of capacity to draw an arbitrary line between permission to kiss or hug, as opposed to engaging in more intimate relations.
The contrasting testimony put a spotlight on the very serious questions of who makes decisions -- and how decisions are made -- about "capacity" to engage in essential behaviors such as sex for persons with dementia. This topic is further explored, with great prescience, by a law student at the University of Illinois in the current issue of the Elder Law Journal, written well before the Rayhons trial. Stephanie Tang, who was also the managing editor for the journal in 2014-15, writes:
To best balance the interests of the elderly with those of the states, states should develop and adopt a model assessment tool that employs a clinical perspective to evaluate a person’s capacity to consent to sexual activity. Model assessment tools provide courts with a clear and objective standard, which would increase predictability and uniformity of court decisions.
Moreover, identifying specific cognitive functions that need to be assessed would constitute a major step forward in those states that have not yet done so.This Note advocates for the use of two tests: 1) the Socio-Sexual Knowledge and Attitudes Test (SSKAT) and 2) Cognisat. Authors have previously argued for the adoption of the SSKAT to assess sexual capacity to consent among mentally retarded patients. The American Bar Association and American Psychological Association cited use of Cognistat to assess cognitive capacity to consent to sexual activity among hypothetical patients with diminished capacity.
To put this simply, in her article,When "Yes" Might Mean "No": Standardizing State Criteria to Validate The Capacity to Consent to Sexual Activity for Elderly with Neurocognitive Disorders, Ms. Tang is arguing that far more sophisticated and appropriate tools are available and should be used to assist in evaluating capacity to participate in sex. Brava, Ms. Tang!
Ms. Tang's article draws in major part on the detailed factual reporting of Bryan Gruley for Bloomberg News, in his important series on rights of the elderly with dementia. Mr. Gruley's articles began to appear as early as 2013, and became even more relevant with his investigation of the events underlying the 2014 charges against Mr. Rayhons.