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Upset Psychologists Say ‘Witch Hunt’ Chills Profession

July 4, 1994

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Regulatory boards for psychologists and social workers are conducting witch hunts in an overzealous response to clients’ complaints of misconduct, an advocacy group of therapists asserts.

The vigorous prosecution of complaints is wrecking innocent lives across the United States and chilling their profession, the therapists say.

″I now have a sense of what it must have felt like for those who came under even the slightest suspicion during the Joe McCarthy years,″ said Judith Sherven, a Los Angeles psychologist, referring to the 1950s communist hunt.

The regulators deny they are too eager to prosecute.

″That’s just silly. We can’t take any action unless there is a complaint by a consumer,″ said enforcement coordinator Suzanne Taylor of the California Board of Psychology.

″It’s pure unadulterated self-interest on their part to say such things,″ said Dixon Arnett, Medical Board of California executive director.

Confidential government documents obtained by The Associated Press in California, however, indicate state officials feel pressure to aggressively prosecute health care professionals once accusations of sexual or other misconduct are made.

And while some regulators do question some disciplinary actions, no systemic overhaul appears likely.

Sherven and other therapists around the country have formed the Professional Advocacy Network, which seeks state reforms to make the system for handling patient complaints more fair to therapists.

Sherven is fighting charges of sexual misconduct with a client, including sitting on his lap. She denies wrongdoing.

Los Angeles social worker Lynn Steinberg, another co-founder, said she was investigated because her assistant allegedly had a personal relationship with a client.

Steinberg said she had no knowledge of any relationship and was not charged, but regulators told her the matter would remain on her record.

″I couldn’t believe what was happening to me, so I wrote 25 letters to fellow professionals,″ Steinberg said. ″Within two weeks, I got 200 calls from all over the nation in response.″

Membership in the network, known as PAN, has grown to more than 1,000 in just one year, Sherven and Steinberg said.

Most of the members face charges they violated professional codes. Overseeing the codes are boards that investigate complaints, bring charges and rule on the cases. This arena of administrative law is distinct from criminal and civil law, and the therapists assert they are not given a fair chance to defend themselves.

Records show some professionals lost licenses. Some were put on probation, damaging their practices. Very few were cleared.

PAN acknowledges there are therapists who stray over the line between intense therapy and sexual misconduct or who intentionally prey on vulnerable clients. Its concern is with a system weighted too heavily against the accused.

″A lot of these cases end up being almost like witch hunts. Just one person’s word against the therapist’s word. The board tends to treat the complainant’s word as gospel,″ said Erica Tabachnick, a Los Angeles attorney who defends health care workers.

Some therapists say they are holding back, not delving as deeply into patients’ problems as they should out of fear that clients will accuse them of wrongdoing.

″Regulators want to see a chillier relationship between therapists and clients. Patients aren’t getting what they used to get,″ said Leslie Rothman, a Gainesville, Fla., psychologist. Rothman spent $10,000 to defend herself against sexual misconduct charges that were eventually dropped.

With concern over all kinds of sex abuse growing, the public focus, understandably, remains on punishing guilty therapists.

Records show complaints against social workers in California, for example, doubled from 1992 to 1993, to just over 1,200. Accusations commonly involve therapists touching, fondling or having sexual intercourse with clients.

Regulatory boards say they vigorously - and appropriately - prosecute therapists for professional code violations and refer criminal allegations to courts.

But critics cite procedures that permit charges to be brought years later, allow changes in the accusations at any time, keep complaints secret from practitioners and hold them to current standards rather than those in place at the time of the alleged misconduct.

Psychologist Mary Krempa Gillespie of Malvern, Pa., said she was officially reprimanded in a matter involving a supposed client she had never seen. ″It’s scary to think all this can happen behind your back,″ she said.

In an internal document obtained by the AP, an official with the California board that oversees physicians and psychiatrists and investigates psychologists conceded the critics may have a point.

Bruce Hasenkamp, Medical Board of California president, said in a March 1994 memo to Arnett, the board’s executive director: ″There may be some merit to these views in some areas - statute of limitations and applying standards in effect at the time of the occurrence rather than today - that we should address.″

Other confidential documents indicate concern by the board that the conviction rate was suffering because of poor performances by some expert witnesses. The documents also say investigators were demoralized, partly because of allegations in a 1993 report that they had ignored serious complaints against physicians.

In his memo to Arnett, Hasenkamp suggested the panel study its disciplinary procedures. In interviews, however, Hasenkamp and Arnett said no studies are planned. Arnett said the board had discussed some of the critics’ concerns but showed little interest in changes.

Neither the American Psychological Association nor the National Association of Social Workers regards the therapists’ complaints as evidence of a widespread problem.

″Occasionally you hear complaints″ about regulators, said John Blamphin, spokesman for the American Psychiatric Association in Washington. ″Sometimes they are from people appropriately censured, sometimes not.″

Reform advocates concede they are not likely to receive support from colleagues who haven’t faced accusations.

″We are trained to respect regulatory agencies,″ said Grant Hutchinson, a Sacramento psychologist on licensing probation over a disputed child custody recommendation. ″Before this, if the board had made an accusation against someone, I would have assumed it was correct.″

Seattle psychologist Gary Sall received a $100,000 settlement and an apology from Washington state after he was wrongly prosecuted over a recommendation in a child molestation investigation.

″With American justice, you always think you’ll get your day in court,″ Sall said. ″It’s not so.″

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