Rehabilitation Or Punishment, Newspaper Series Ponders

By John Thomas, Associate Editor
January 1, 2000



A six-month investigation by a Cleveland, OH newspaper has revealed that nearly 200 psychologists who were found to have committed serious ethical violations in the last 18 years nationwide were allowed to continue their practice without ever serving any suspension.

The Plain Dealer concluded that fellow psychologists sitting on the 50 state regulatory boards are “ideologically inclined to favor rehabilitation over punishment.”

The newspaper was quick to point out that “while most of the nation’s 75,000 licensed psychologists adhere to high standards of ethical conduct,” there are “hundreds of psychologists who have engaged in serious professional misconduct practice today because of the reluctance of regulators to put them out of business.”

The nearly 200 psychologists who were not suspended for even a day were found to have engaged in sexual misconduct with patients, convicted of criminal offenses or committed other major ethical violations.

The Plain Dealer looked a records from all 50 state licensing boards and created a data base containing the names of 2,218 psychologists who have been disciplined or denied licensure as a result of ethics violations. The study went back to 1971, although 80 percent, or 1,754, of the disciplinary actions were taken after Jan. 1, 1990.

The newspaper reported that 27 states have revoked five or fewer licenses. West Virginia, Rhode Island, North Dakota and Montana, which license a total of 1,500 psychologists have taken a combined 15 disciplinary actions, but have never revoked a license. New York, the paper said, has about 14,000 psychologists, and has revoked 12 licenses. In Ohio, where there are 3,900 licensed psychologists, the Ohio Board of Psychology has revoked 16 licenses.

The paper also reported that of the 670 psychologists disciplined nationally for sexual misconduct, 131 (or 20%) were given reprimands or were placed on probation under terms that allowed them to continue their practices.

In a letter to the editor of the Plain Dealer a few days after the series appeared, Richard Reckman, Ph.D., president of the Ohio Psychological Assn., wrote: “We abhor psychologists, as well as other professionals, who exploit their patients and clients,” adding “unethical behavior occurs not only in psychology, but also in other mental health professions including psychiatry, social work and counseling. Further, it occurs in medicine, the law, dentistry and the clergy, facts not presented in Mr. Wendling’s articles.”

Among the more egregious cases uncovered by the Plain Dealer:

* A South Carolina psychologist who had nursed a man at her breast and rubbed his buttocks with baby powder during therapy was only required to send him a letter of apology, hire another psychologist to review her records, take an ethics course and discontinue all physical contact with her patients.
* An Alexandria psychologist received a similar penalty from the Virginia Board of Psychology after he confessed to having an affair with a female patient while doing marriage counseling with the woman and her husband.

The newspaper quotes Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D., director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group, as saying “For the physicians or therapists who have engaged in sex with their patients, they should not be allowed to continue to go back into practice, period.”

Wolfe co-authored a study in 1998 that found psychiatrists represented the largest segment (28%) of the 761 physicians who were disciplined between 1981 and 1996 for “sex-related offenses.”

Explaining why so few ethics violators lose their licenses, Rahe B. Corlis, Ph.D., who just ended a five-year term on the Ohio Board of Psychology, told The Plain Dealer “If we can help a psychologist get rehabilitated, I think we’re doing the public a service by restoring somebody to be of service to the public rather than taking their license and hurting the career.”

Critics of psychology boards say that psychologist regulators see themselves not as judges charged with evaluating evidence and dispensing justice, but as therapists who are striving to rehabilitate their dysfunctional peers.

Chris Barden, Ph.D., J.D., of Salt Lake City, who served on the Minnesota Board of Psychology from 1993 to 1997 is one of those critics.

He is quoted as saying “This therapizing of the therapist who is in trouble is a real problem. I refer to the psychology boards as “captured boards,” boards that have been captured by the profession they are supposed to regulate. They’re supposed to be triers of facts, but unfortunately, they act more like therapists than an official body whose major objective should be to protect the public.”

Critics say the boards rely too much on elaborate orders that attempt to restrict the practices of psychologists who engage in sexual misconduct while still allowing them to treat patients. Those stipulations include mandating that those psychologists practice “no touch” therapy– including a ban on session-ending “therapeutic hugs”–; requiring solo practitioners to hire a secretary; allowing therapy only with the office door open; and prohibiting them from treating members of the opposite sex.

There are some cases where boards limit the practice of male psychologists who engage in sexual misconduct to prisons, the newspaper reported.

Gary R. Schoener, M. Eq. licensed., of Minneapolis, questions such practices. “That’s ludicrous,” Schoener told The Plain Dealer. “How much power does a secretary have, and what would be her incentive for biting the hand that feeds her. As for allowing these people to practice in prisons, what are you saying if the guy you’re working with is that screwed up? What is the quality of his work?”

Schoener and other critics, the newspaper said, are also not impressed with the therapy and supervision of most disciplinary orders.

Ohio State University Sociology Professor Carol Bohmer, who has been writing a book on professional sexual exploitation, told The Plain Dealer: “I’ve heard a lot of stories about what a laughable effort rehabilitation is. There are psychologists who get their friends to be their therapists, nobody follows them up and the therapy is utterly undefined.”

The data base of psychologists disciplined by state boards that is maintained by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards allows member boards to track psychologists who get disciplined in one state and then try to obtain a license in another state, the newspaper explained.

But that information is not available to the public or to licensing boards that regulate other mental health professionals, including social workers and counselors. As a result, The Plain Dealer explained, some psychologists who have had their licenses revoked have continued working as therapists by practicing in another specialty.

The newspaper pointed to an example in California in which a psychologist was denied licensure because of his three criminal convictions for molesting boys. Despite that, the psychologist maintained his counselor’s license, which was issued by another board. A board employee explained that the board had never taken any disciplinary action against him because he was considered rehabilitated.

As a result, the board cannot reveal the psychologist’s criminal record if someone from the public inquired.

The newspaper said psychology boards in California, Washington, Colorado and many other states require a written public records request to obtain information on the reason for any disciplinary action.

The paper reported that in Ohio, the board has ordered its staff not to give out information on past disciplinary actions unless a consumer demands it. As a result, callers who inquire about a psychologist are not told about past misconduct unless they ask the right question.

Corlis is quoted as saying “It’s just like when a person gets out of jail–that they have paid their debt to society. If, in our opinion, they’re now practicing within the rules, why should they necessarily be penalized because they made a mistake 10 or 15 years ago?”

The Plain Dealer concluded that most boards are underfunded and typically are represented by unseasoned general practice attorneys who also represent other state boards and commissions.

“It’s like Custer calling for more Indians; the boards don’t want cases, Schoener is quoted as saying. “I think they’re struggling with a system that’s not up to the task. They need more firepower, more staff.’

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