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Government News
Psychologists’ Disciplinary Failure Leads to New Law in Ohio
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 6 page 18-18

When mental health professionals sexually abuse their patients, it is time to stop offering them a carrot and pick up a big stick. That is the message Ohio legislators are sending to therapists who take sexual liberties with patients.

SB 9, signed last month by Gov. Robert Taft (R), makes sex between mental health professionals and their patients a felony punishable by imprisonment and heavy fines.

Ohio is the 24th state, along with the District of Columbia, with laws on their books that criminalize therapist-patient sex (see box). For coercing a patient to have sex as part of treatment, offenders will be sentenced up to five years in prison and fined $10,000. Any sexual contact (sexual imposition) between therapist and patient would be charged as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. No longer will accused therapists be allowed to use the "consensual sex" alibi, unless it can be proven that the patient was not "emotionally dependent" and did not submit to the act as a part of their therapy.

The impetus for the bill was a series of articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer beginning in December 1999, showing that psychologists convicted of sexual offenses received little or no censure by the State Board of Psychology. Since its establishment in 1972, the Ohio Board of Psychology had revoked the licenses of only 16 of its 3,900 members.

Consequently, the bill drafted by Sen. Robert F. Spada (R) in 2000 focused exclusively on legislation that would make the state psychology regulatory board more responsible for disciplining members who were found guilty of sexual offenses by criminalizing such acts.

The proposed bill was vehemently opposed by the Ohio Psychology Board and other state counseling associations. The Ohio Psychiatric Association (OPA) weighed in on the matter because it had problems with Spada’s bill as written. The major objection was that it was written incorrectly—it used the terms "psychologist" and "psychiatrist" interchangeably, making the two appear to be equivalent, said S.R. Thorward, M.D., chair of OPA’s government relations committee.

Moreover, the bill did not need to include psychiatrists because, Thorward pointed out, "there was nothing new in the bill that did not already exist in terms of the Ohio Medical Practice Act and supervision that was being done by the Ohio State Board of Medical Examiners." The existing law and board regulations apply to all physicians in the state, including psychiatrists, and stipulate that serious boundary violations, such as patient-therapist sex, be reported to the county prosecutor in which the misbehavior occurred.

Although Spada’s bill was indeed aimed at psychologists, after discussions between OPA and Spada’s staff, it was clear that Spada did not want to back off including psychiatrists. Thus, OPA took the position that the bill had to be broadened to include all mental health professionals.

"We were not so much pushing for an expansion of the bill," said Thorward, "but we convinced Sen. Spada that if he was going to refer to psychiatrists in the bill, then the bill needed to cover all mental health professionals. A compromise was reached and the bill was expanded, so the mandatory reporting and criminal penalties included all mental health professionals. Since that was already required by physicians, we did not have any reason to oppose the bill on these grounds. And we are not going to take any stance that would indicate to the community that anything less than full [accountability] of a person guilty of sexual offenses is beneficial," he said.

Although the bill initially died in December 2000, Spada had it reintroduced last year.

The text of the bill (SB 9) can be accessed on the Web at www.legislature.state.oh.us/search.cfm by entering "9" and clicking on "Senate."

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