Apr 16

Sexual Assault by Therapists: What You Can Do

No matter the therapist’s motivations, the patient is almost always grievously harmed by the betrayal of trust inherent in sexual misconduct. For therapy to work, patients need to bare their soul and put trust in the therapist, which gives the therapist tremendous power. Felice J. Freyer, Boston Globe, regarding sexual assault by therapists

Ripped from the headlines? “Dearly Beloved,” a recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, offered a twisty tale regarding a therapy client’s accusation that she’d been raped by her male therapist.

I’ll save the spoilers. Suffice it to say, some therapists, not just males, have sexually abused their clients, not just females, both inside the office and outside, the latter by forming ongoing personal relationships. All leading professional organizations in the mental health field deem this highly unethical.

Furthermore, more than half of the states in this country now deem it illegal. The 27 statutes exist in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin (CCHRINT.org).

An organization that was formed in Boston and has existed since 1989, TELL (Therapy Exploitation Link Line), “is a support network run by victims/survivors for victims/survivors of sexual and emotional abuse by psychotherapists and other healthcare professionals.” Mostly now a cyberspace, TELL provides a significant amount of information and support on its site.

What recourse do victims have? Possible actions include the following (from TELL’s “Resources”):

  • File a civil suit for damages
  • File a licensure complaint
  • Write or call the ex-therapist
  • Arrange for private compensation for damages
  • File a criminal complaint (limited to states that have criminalized)
  • Seek individual or group therapy
  • Request a confrontation or processing session (with a qualified mediator)
  • Seek compensation from a victims’ fund (limited to states and organizations that maintain such funds)
  • File a complaint with the ethics committee of a professional association
  • Notify the employer, agency director, or church hierarchy (n the case of clergy practicing psychotherapy)
  • Report to county or state authorities
  • Do nothing

Regarding any of the steps above, it’s noted that it’s preferable first to seek the advice of a qualified attorney. Some specialized lawyers are listed here.

Another organization, CCHR (The Citizens Commission on Human Rights), “a non-profit, non-political, non-religious mental health industry watchdog whose mission is to eradicate abuses committed under the guise of mental health,” is calling for all states to get on board with criminalization of therapist sexual assault. An important element:

CCHR says it should be made clear in every statute that ‘consent’ of the patient is not a valid defense because of the overpowering influence a psychiatrist or psychologist may have on a patient — more so than with doctors because of the ability to discredit any patient complaint as a sign of ‘mental illness’ and their power to threaten involuntary commitment should the victim speak out. The Official Code of Georgia, for example, stipulates: ‘Consent of the victim shall not be a defense to a prosecution’ of a therapist who sexually abuses a patient.

Another aspect of needed legislation must include recognition that some therapists, particularly those who can prescribe (mainly psychiatrists), use drugs to incapacitate their victims.