Update on the Stubblefield sexual assault case

Those following the case of Anna Stubblefield, the Rutgers-Newark philosophy professor accused of sexually assaulting a disabled man, may be interested in the following update to the case:

Judge Siobhan Teare ruled [that a proposed expert for the defense], Rosemary Crossley, will not be allowed to testify in regard to her assessment of the alleged victim, known as D.J. The evaluation was meant to test D.J.’s ability to communicate.

The judge found Crossley’s methods were “unreliable,” because she assisted D.J. in moving a communication device during the assessment.

But Stubblefield’s attorney, James Patton, said he is still requesting that Crossley be permitted to testify at the trial about the methodology used by the state’s experts in evaluating D.J., if those experts are allowed to testify.

Those experts have determined D.J. did not have the ability to consent to the sexual activity.

Stubblefield has apparently claimed that her relationship with “D.J.” was consensual because he consented via facilitated communication. Facilitated communication is highly controversial method of communication aimed at allowing people with cognitive disabilities to communicate, even if they are not capable of written, spoken, or signed language (as in the case of “D.J.”). There appears to be very little evidence that facilitated communication is a reliable method of communication. (Indeed, there seems to be quite a lot of evidence that it is not reliable and that responses are heavily influenced by the facilitator). Nevertheless, the method continues to be championed by some disability advocates and caregivers.

Stubblefield – herself a defender and practioner of facilitated communication – is relying on the good standing of the practice for her claim that her sexual encounters with “D.J.” were consensual. She repeatedly had sexual contact with “D.J.” in her office and is claiming he consented to this via facilitated communication. But experts for the prosecution have – unsurprisingly – found that “D.J.” is incapable of consent. The judge has now ruled that there is insufficient scientific evidence to allow an advocate of facilitated communication to testify as an expert witness on behalf of Stubblefield.

31 thoughts on “Update on the Stubblefield sexual assault case

  1. It’s also worth noting, I think, that this is pretty problematic given the professional context (i.e., that Stubblefield was working with the victim as an experimental subject) aside even from the massive consent issue.

  2. Wait, is Stubblefield still employed in a philosophy department? A long while back I saw her name had been removed from the faculty listing page at Rutgers-Newark. I had assumed the problematic professional context in conjunction with the admission of sexual contact was enough that she was no longer employed, legal issues of consent aside.

  3. The research relationship is a problem on at least two levels:

    1) Even IF the relationship could be construed as consensual (which I don’t think is remotely reasonable), it introduces conflict of interest, and

    2) Even IF the claim of consent through FC was valid (which I don’t think is remotely reasonable) the power differential is insurmountable: she is supposedly, on her claim, his only voice to the world. There can be no assumption that any consent supposedly given was freely given without intimidation or without fear of losing his “voice”

    Even on the absolutely most charitable reading of her case, I can’t see how this was anything but rape.


  4. Philodaria, I don’t know whether she’s still employed at Rutgers-Newark. (Sorry, I didn’t mean for my post to imply that she was! I have no idea.)

    Sigrid, well said!

  5. Thanks for clarifying magical–though, I should say now that I’ve had a second look I think I read too hastily. That she was a professor accused doesn’t entail that she is still employed as a professor there.

  6. Wait, is Stubblefield still employed in a philosophy department?

    What I gathered from various news reports is that She has been put on leave without pay until after the trial. That seems pretty reasonable to me. There may be reasons to remove her even if she is not convicted of a crime, but I don’t see any harm in letting the legal process work itself out at this point. I assume that, if she is convicted of a serious crime, it would be fairly straight forward to remove her tenure and fire her. If she is not convicted of the crimes she is charged with for one reason or another, it may still be appropriate for her to face removal for reasons like those noted by Sigrid, though of course only after a proper investigation.

  7. It is worth noting that, even if the conclusions of the studies (small in number and very dubious in methodology) that support facilitated communication were accepted at face value, and even if D.J. did in fact consent, Stubblefield’s actions would remain grossly indefensible.

    For those studies purport only to show that severely cognitively disabled people may pass messages through FC with reliability *somewhat better than random chance*. This would be an interesting result if it were right (which it probably isn’t), but it wouldn’t come close to making FC an analogue of ordinary verbal communication as a method of reliably learning the mental states of the people involved.

    And surely morally licit sexual contact requires not only consent but *known* consent: acting on the basis of evidence a little bit better than a guess is not a morally decent way to proceed here, even if one happens to luck into the right answer.

  8. Thanks for bringing that up, Grad Student – I absolutely agree.

    Perhaps I should clarify that in focusing on the issue of the (un)reliability of FC in the original post, I didn’t at all mean to suggest that this was the only salient issue. It was just the salient issue with respect to the update in the case proceedings.

  9. Yeah, the comments by Monkey, Sigrid, and Grad Student are exactly why I thought the criminal proceedings were extraneous to the question of what the appropriate employment response is (and what I had thought had already happened).

  10. I am amazed that people in the philosophical community are so quick to judge and so quick to draw the conclusion that Stubblefield is guilty, that DJ could not have assented, that sex with a man who was disabled was inherently a question of a power imbalance. Here are some questions posed by a woman who is married to a disabled veteran and the mother of a very disabled son in response to a seriously offensive piece of writing in the Daily Mail:


    A bit more reasoned restraint and questioning is in order.

  11. Thanks for your comment, Eva. I absolutely agree that there has been an unfortunate tendency, in the reporting of this case, to assume the disabled people are powerless and non-sexual, which is both false and harmful. I don’t agree, though, that those of us who are expressing here the view that Stubblefield has acted wrongly are doing so in a way that is not thoughtful, careful, or questioning.

    I’ve read a lot about facilitated communication since this trial started, and I have to say that the evidence against its reliability is fairly damning. That’s not to say it couldn’t work in some cases, but rather that to be in a position to *know* that it is working *in that particular case* is difficult, if not impossible. Perhaps the current evidence is wrong, of course – but I tell my students that it makes sense, in most cases, to accept scientific consensus, and I think I should hold myself to the same standard. And the scientific consensus here does seem fairly strong.

    For me, though, the most troubling aspects of the case – related to consent and power relationships – have very little to do with disability specifically (and I would never assume that a power imbalance was created simply because one person was disabled). D ostensibly knew Stubblefield in a professional capacity – at least at first – and even if we assume that the facilitated communication was reliable, he would have been reliant on her, and her specifically, for communication. I don’t want to say that consent isn’t possible in such a scenario, but I do think such a scenario creates a power imbalance. (To emphasize, the power dynamic I am concerned about here has everything to do with the professional relationship, not with D’s being disabled.) I also think that affirmative, enthusiastic consent is important for any sexual encounter, most *especially* one in which there is any kind of power dynamic. And given the known potential for bias in facilitated communication (i.e., the known potential for the views of the person assisting the communication to influence the apparent outcome), I do not see how Stubblefield could have been in a position to know that she had enthusiastic, affirmative consent.

    Over and over, when thinking about this case, I have been weighing up the issues – power, professionalism, consent – and trying to think about what I say about these issues in other cases (e.g., cases where male professors sleep with their female students). And this has left me thinking that, whatever the legal implications may be and however good her intentions may have been, Stubblefield did something very wrong. In thinking this, I don’t think I haven’t been questioning. I’ve done a lot of questioning. But part of what I have been questioning is how much the genders involved are influencing people’s reaction. I think, for example, that if Stubblefield was a man and D was a woman, there would be far fewer people defending Stubblefield. Again, this isn’t anything specific to the disability issues, and for me is all about consent and power relationships.

  12. Is there any reason that people are posting anonymously here? I’m just going through these comments and see that just one is from someone I know. Can someone say why this is?

  13. I’m not sure there’s a general answer to that question. Many of the regular bloggers here – like me – use pseudonyms because it’s a complicated matter to write about feminism on the internet and as academics our contact information is readily available. (Plus, we get some creepy visitors to this site – you should see the google searches that lead people here.) Other commenters might have all sorts of reasons for being anonymous.

  14. [Mod note – sorry for the delay in this comment appearing – it went to spam for some reason]

    This thoughtful response was not reflected in what I first read and reacted to. But I still disagree with the assessment, and it is surely difficult to divorce the disability issues and the other issues you raise, but I think there are other vitally important disanalogies, not the least of which is the treatment accorded to Anna. I cannot disagree that Anna was guilty of bad judgment. Even if they had fallen in love, there were more cautious ways of approaching the possibility of a sexual involvement. But this was not clearly just a student-teacher, or professional-client relationship. They presented at conferences together. DJ wrote an article together with Anna–though her voice is not especially prominent in the article if one compares the writing to Anna’s own–which was published in Disability Studies Quarterly. There was reason for Anna to have thought of this 35 year old man as an equal. Anna was escorted out of Rutgers by the police. She has been prohibited from communicating with DJ and believes that the communicative abilities of the man she loves have been stripped away. She is sitting in jail now — bail was denied–and is facing a 10-40 year sentence. Our many colleagues who take advantage of young students much more their junior–and in some cases outright rape them (no question of consent at all), if disciplined, are eventually left go of their jobs–only to be hired elsewhere. The way in which Anna’s situation and their’s are handled is so incomparable as to leave one truly bewildered. The article in the DM and other media portrayals treated DJ in a truly awful manner. The response I quoted was in reference to this media portrayal, and while I think that the case is filled with ethical quandaries, I think that we have a duty to be judicious in our response. I know Anna — have known her for many years– and I find it hard — really impossible–to imagine that she would gratify her sexual desire at the expense of a disabled person. She and DJ wanted to get married. They told of their relationship to the his parents because they were informing them of their decision to marry. Her family was ready to accept DJ into their family as a beloved son-in-law. Anna’s may have been bad judgment–perhaps very bad judgment. But it was borne of love and a genuine respect for the equality of persons with disability. It is not a scurrilous sexual scandal on par with the sexist behavior of our colleagues. As feminists and disability rights scholars and advocates, let’s tread lightly.

  15. I am growing incredibly uncomfortable with this conversation. Everyone who commits sexual assault has someone who will attest that they know them and aren’t the sort of person who would do that. Sexual predators and assailants don’t wear t-shirts that say “I’m a creep! Beware!” warning the world — so while I understand it might be difficult to think that a friend or colleague could have done something like this, a court has found her responsible, and nothing said here to defend why Stubblefield might have thought she had his consent (something I’m completely willing to believe, and am still horrified by what happened nonetheless) gets around the issue that magical pointed out which is that all of these communications came through FC as facilitated by Stubblefield. There are a plethora of nasty cases in the history of FC demonstrating that it can be unreliable, and that communications can (and in dozens of horrifying cases of sexual abuse and false allegations of abuse against families, have) come from the facilitator.

    I’ve read the paper that was published under his name at DSQ, and in fact, I wrote to them the other day to ask if they were considering retracting it because if it’s true that Stubblefield was (I’ll grant, very possibly unconsciously) manipulating the communications, I think it would be an insult to both justice and academic integrity to let an article in which the very practice used to victimize him is defended remain under his name.

    I’m thankful that people take the time to read and comment here, and I’m thankful that we (both the FP bloggers ourselves, and our readers) can have all kinds of disagreements, and discuss them — but this is starting to feel beyond the bounds of what we would allow had the individuals involved been different people.

  16. *Thank you*, Noetika. In so many of these conversations about sexual assault, we keep emphasizing that it doesn’t matter what the person’s intentions were, or whether they took themselves to have consent, or whether they’re in general a nice and well-meaning person. What matters is whether they had consent and whether what they did was abusive. Surely this is *especially* the case when we’re considering the abuse of a disabled person by a person who interacted with them in a professional context, give that disabled people are at extreme risk of sexual abuse by caregivers and other professionals.

    Frankly, I am extremely doubtful that if Stubblefield were a man and DM were a woman we would be having this conversation at all. That Stubblefield is a woman – and self-identified feminist – doesn’t make the egregiousness of her actions any more mitigated by good intentions than in other cases.

    I’m not going to approve any further comments in support of Stubblefield. This is someone who I believe has committed a serious sexual assault, and I’m not going to approve comments defending that action.

  17. I am very grateful for the hard thought that has gone into comments here. I do not know Stubblefield at all, though we communicated briefly over the 2013 Central Division APA Program. Nonetheless, I feel very sad about the case, even though I have a way too vivid sense of what it is like to be used by a person in authority.

    So I have been trying to understand this sense of sadness, which I haven’t felt in some of the recent cases (though I have in others). I think that one reason is that there are no winners, and there is instead a great deal of loss which may be irretrieval.

    A second reason is that I can understand what seems to be a huge strategic mistake on Stubblefield’s part. Given the victim’s family’s opposition, the apparent serial attempts at contact were bound to have a bad outcome. I hope I am not alone in at one time simply not being able to realize that I was or could be targeted for what seemed to me a wholly good thing. In fact, in my case, it was much more rational for me to persist in the pursuit of my goal, but an obsessive pursuit of the good is nonetheless obsessive and somewhat blind. So I can see myself making at least a simlar endgame mistake.

    Finally, through all this the victim has been treated as pretty entirely lacking subjectivity, at least in the reports I’ve read. That is also very sad.

  18. [Moderator’s note: this comment has been edited to remove the victim’s name and had two sentences removed in order to comply with our comments policy]

    I’m an anthropologist, a disability studies scholar, and a person with both an involuntary movement disorder and speech difficulty. I look and sound like I have CP, as has DJ. However, my impairments are dystonia, not CP, started at age nine, have changed enormously over the ensuing 56 years, and that change has been both exacerbations and improvements. This is rare. I can communicate not only the psychological but the embodied physical experience of walking vs not walking and talking vs not talking. I can relate to you how people all over the world, but in particular in Italy, Australia, Morocco, Puerto-Rico, and Guatemala respond to me and my impairments. I have had to make tough choices about where and when I will push through prejudice and be heard. I’ve shared this with my medical and applied anthropology and disability studies students at Clark, Michigan, Berkeley, and CUNY.

    My knowledge of this case is personal, I know Anna and DJ. I’ve seen the result of Dj’s typing, not only with Anna but with others helping him. The word order and grammar errors are consistent across typing assistant. It’s not my intent to defend “FC.” I am only an observer, no matter how well trained. I don’t use the term “FC” because I don’t think it is one thing and can be measured for study in one way in a controlled setting. Were I to want to do so, I would collaborate with a neurological movement specialist to look at changes in the Electromyography of the typist with various assistive devices, human help, and in different contexts.

    What I can say is that what faith I had in the courts is pretty eroded. Too much evidence was withheld, and I’m sure that in no way will the punishment fit the circumstances. No one has yet convinced me that DJ is incompetent to testify nor unwilling to testify. My default is always to assume competence.

  19. According to the NY Times http://nyti.ms/1GQEKQD in fact only Anna, her mother, and one other close associate were successful in facilitating any communication with DJ’s. DJ’s mother and very well educated brother, notwithstanding their considerable effort and training in the technique of “facilitated communication” ,could elicit nothing but gibberish. Ultimately the family came to believe it was all a hoax, and indeed, when they attempted to test whether or not DJ could communicate things that Anna did not know, it turned out he couldn’t. [Moderator’s note: comment edited to comply with comments policy]

  20. Without defending FC in general, or even specifically in this case, one should note that the Times article never speaks of DJ’s family’s attempts to facilitate him as resulting in “gibberish”. It might be true or not, but what the article says instead is: “Wesley remembered that he would take hold of D.J.’s arm, and they would type a single word together: the. Then nothing. … P. said that when she tried to grab D.J.’s hand, he would pull it away or scratch her.” What failed was the effort to do it at all, not that it resulted in “gibberish.”

  21. Thank you Magicalersatz for your original post and this update. I particularly appreciate your linking to a 2010 review of the evidence on Facilitated Communication. You and the readers might be interested in a more recent position statement and its underlying systematic review:

    2014 Position Statement on Facilitated Communication by the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC)

    Systematic review underlying the position statement
    This review is still free access

  22. Thank you Magicalersatz for linking to the perspective paper by Janyce Boynton, a former facilitator. Your readers might be interested in the following reaction papers to Boynton (see below). As a point of disclosure, I am one of three editors of the journal in which these articles are published.

    Boynton, J. (2012). Facilitated communication – what harm can it do?: Confessions of a former facilitator. Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, 6(1), 3-13. DOI: 10.1080/17489539.2012.674680

    Palfreman, J. (2012). The dark legacy of FC. Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, 6(1), 14-17. DOI: 10.1080/17489539.2012.688343

    Mostert, M. P. (2012). Facilitated communication: The empirical imperative to prevent further professional malpractice. Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, 6(1), 18-27, DOI: 10.1080/17489539.2012.693840

    Von Tetzcher, S. (2012). Understanding facilitated communication: Lessons from a facilitator – Comments on Boynton, 2012. Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, 6(1), 28-35. DOI: 10.1080/17489539.2012.699729

    Todd, J. (2012). The moral obligation to be empirical: Comments on Boynton’s “Facilitated Communication – what harm it can do: Confessions of a former facilitator.” Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, 6(1), 36-57. DOI: 10.1080/17489539.2012.704738

  23. Re # 17. Noetika you mentioned that you had asked Disability Studies Quarterly whether they would consider removing the piece that was supposedly authored by DJ. Please keep us in the loop if you hear back about your request. Thank you!

  24. Ralf, thanks for asking about this — they just never replied to my email. I was actually just wondering last night if I should share it with a few friends and ask them if they feel the question is important too, to write their own letters asking for a response.

  25. I agree that the journal should retract the paper. It’s also important to know whether they are unwilling to do this, since it would not bode well for the standards of scholarships of the editors of this journal if they are not.

  26. Of course the journal should retract it. It’s indefensible not to – and it’s really creepy to see a journal being so defensive about a convicted rapist.

  27. I am writing as the mother of a significantly intellectually disabled man who has difficulty with communicating effectively. I have been on both sides of the sexual consent question. He has been in one relationship where consent (though not as far as sexual) was clear between him and another woman. I discussed with my son at length his budding romance and the choices that lie ahead. Her mother on the otherhand refused to consider that her daughter had any capability to consent and made it impossible for the two of them to communicate. She also made it impossible for her daughter to ever be in a situation where she would ever be alone with anyone of the opposite sex. The real power differential in their relationship was one mother who saw their child as a competent adult and another who didn’t.

    A few years later my son was raped by a caregiver. He told a therapist and he told me what happened. He was interviewed by Adult Protective Services three times where they got three sets of responses. Instead of believing that since he trusted me and his therapist more, and we knew what words he understood and did not, that what he told us was more reliable – they believed the caregiver. Nothing happened to the caregiver as a result. My son on the otherhand has had his sense of self destroyed. He no longer feels safe, he no longer feels anyone will listen when he says no, he no longer has any interest in romantic relationships, he no longer functions in any way like how he was capable of doing so before.

    I can only imagine what harm is coming to D.J. His voice has been silenced. His opportunities to be in the world as an independent adult removed.

    Whether you believe in FC or not, DJ was a part of an adult community that valued him, loved him, and believed he could achieve anazing things. He had friends and opportunities. He was with people who saw past the diapers and the drool to the man he was. [. . .]
    What this case should be about, but isn’t, is why is it OK to label people incompetent just because you don’t understand them? Why is it OK that DJ has been silenced? There are other methods besides FC to communicate with people who cannot speak or write.

    [. . .]

    [Moderator’s note: this comment has been edited to comply with our comment policies]

  28. I believe that the trial did not settle questions about DJ’s capabilities. To ask DSQ to withdraw the article at this time would therefore be premature. The piece in DSQ is published under DJ’s name, not Anna’s, so his status is the issue that would have to be investigated first-hand. To withdraw his piece because Anna was convicted of something would seem to me to be inappropriate. If the journal refuses to withdraw the piece at this time, that does not imply that they are defending Anna at all or have any opinion about what she did or did not do; they need only be defending their right to investigate DJ’s status independently and to make a judgment based on their own investigation. Someone might think that the trial evidence (which was by no means complete, scientific or exhaustive) and Anna’s conviction provide some information about DJ’s status, but that is the most it could be said to provide. There is “facilitated” and there is “facilitated.” Facilitation is not an on/off switch–there can be more or less facilitation in this or that case. There are degrees of independence, and degrees of help. It therefore seems to me that arguments against “FC” in general are relatively useless as evidence about DJ’s capabilities. Without a thorough investigation of DJ’s specific case–which does not seem to have been done for the purposes of the trial, and was certainly not presented to the jury–I do not see how we can be so sure–from our distance–about what DJ can and cannot do.

  29. I’ve decided to close comments on the posts related to this case. They are becoming too difficult and time-consuming to moderate. Thanks, everyone, for the discussion.

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