Federal court failed when it tried to criminalize therapy, psychologist contends after mistrial

By John Thomas, Associate Editor
May 1, 1999



The first psychologist to be charged criminally in a recovered memory case says she hasn’t decided whether she will resume her practice in Houston, even though the federal government has dropped charges against her.

The five-month long trial of Judith A. Peterson, Ph.D. in federal court in Houston ended in March with a mistrial when not enough jurors remained to render a verdict. The government then dropped the charges. Peterson and four other persons, including two psychiatrists, a therapist, and a hospital administrator, were charged with insurance fraud and conspiracy by the government.

Peterson said she is particularly unsure whether she would treat someone who needed therapy for posttraumatic disorder syndrome, dissociative disorders or multiple personality disorder even though she is a widely recognized as an expert therapist in those areas.

The government claimed that Peterson and the others conspired to defraud insurance companies by treating insured patients at a Houston hospital for multiple personality disorders caused by alleged severe ritualized sexual abuse in satanic cults.

The five were alleged to have abused their status as professionals, in that they applied techniques associated with mind control or brainwashing, using hypnosis, administering drugs for untested uses and using restraints to coerce patients into believing they had been ritually abused in cults.

Peterson, who is unable to work currently because of posttraumatic disorder syndrome brought on by the charges and the trial, said that although she had been charged with insurance fraud, the government focused only on her diagnostic and therapeutic activities during 1991 and 1992, the time period in which the fraud was alleged to have taken place.

“The government was trying me for malpractice rather than conspiracy and fraud. The only things they talked about during the whole trial was my diagnosis and treatment,” Peterson told The National Psychologist. “The government attempted to criminalize therapy in this trial, but failed.”

Once the charges against her were dropped when the government said it would not seek a re-trial, the 11 remaining jurors voted unanimously among themselves for acquittal, Peterson noted.

She said the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a Philadelphia-based group of mostly academics who think that many repressed memories of incest and sexual abuse are the result of certain kinds of therapeutic intervention, was behind the government’s criminal indictments.

But Foundation Executive Director Pamela Freyd, Ph.D. scoffed at the idea of the organization having enough clout to influence the government.

She added, however, that she isn’t surprised that a group of therapists who were treating what she believes were false memories forced on unsuspecting patients would think the foundation would possess the power to influence the government over criminal prosecutions.

“It’s their strange world view,” Freyd said.

Peterson identified an attorney who had told the 1994 meeting of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation that he was working tirelessly to bring criminal charges against therapists that treated recovered memories.

The Foundation did alert the media in about the trial that began on Sept. 8, and established a website that reported on events daily. A substantial package of information used by the prosecution was also mailed to the media. However, it appears little press attention was generated outside Houston.

Peterson said she and the others used nothing but normal accepted forms of therapy in treating those with dissociative disorders and that those diagnoses had been made by other mental health professionals before she began treating them.

The 51-year-old therapist said she doesn’t believe the government’s alleged attempt to criminalize certain therapeutic approaches in dissociative disorders will have any long-term affect.

“At first, when the charges were filed, I think there was a feeling among some therapists that were doing the same kind of work that I do that they would be reluctant to take on new patients with dissociative disorders,” Peterson said.

“But, now that the government’s case has been shown to be thoroughly and completely off base, I don’t think there’s much concern out there about treating this population,” she added.

Stress from the charges and media attention has also taken its physical toll on Peterson. Most of her stomach was removed because of stress-related ulceration. She has submitted a legal bill for $550,000 under a provision that forces the government to pay to legal bills for those falsely charged.

“We had no savings to begin with, and we borrowed money that has to be re-paid,” she explained.

Peterson asked for financial help from the American Psychological Association’s legal defense fund, but was turned down.

“I wasn’t too surprised that an organization I’ve belonged to for 30 years wouldn’t help me. I would resign in disgust, but I get my malpractice insurance through the APA,” Peterson said.

She explained that the APA requested a report on how she planned to defend herself at the trial.

“My attorney said we can’t tell them that. That would be crazy to reveal our defense. When I told APA that we couldn’t tell them this information, they replied that they couldn’t help me,” she said.

Now that the trial is over, Peterson said she hopes to be able to speak to state and other psychological associations about her ordeal.
“I have a story to tell that I think most psychologists will find is terrifying,” she said.

Meanwhile, Peterson said she’s afraid to see patients.

“I was doing something I loved very much. I’ve been robbed of much of my life at the best time of my life. I just don’t know if I can ever work again.”

Contributions to the Judith Peterson Defense Fund can be sent to David Day at Chalker, Balir and Associates, 55 Waugh Dr., Suite 500, Houston, TX 77007.

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