8News is exposing shocking problems with Virginia’s mental health system. It’s a dark secret in the industry: Counselors, therapists and psychologists sexually abusing their vulnerable patients. We found that little is being done to protect the patient.
In May, we broke the news about a Chesterfield mental health counselor who was able to get a license and practice here in Virginia for two years–despite a complaint filed in Florida, alleging he had sex with a patient and flogged her.
The case reveals a frightening breakdown in the way states, including Virginia, protect patients from sexual exploitation.
Heather Lynette Sinclair was stunned and scared; she was seeking treatment for depression and the abuse she endured as a child. She had no idea she was about to be abused and violated again by her mental health counselor.
“He says do a quick spin for me and so I did and then he pulled me close to him and he bear hugged my legs and then he rammed his fingers inside of me,” Heather recalls.
The Maryland mother of two didn’t know where to turn.
“Who is going to believe me, he is a doctor, he is a PHD doctor.”
But she soon learned she wasn’t alone. After much research, Heather launched Lynette’s Law, a package of bills and a website aimed at protecting patients.
She’s spent countless hours listening to state hearings and has exposed dozens of mental health counselors having sex with their patients…some from Virginia.
Experts in the field like Dr. David Stein, a member of the International Board of Ethics in Psychology and Psychiatry, says counselors crossing the lines with patients happens more than we probably know.
“The stats were, about 19 to 20 percent of therapists have engaged in sexual relationships with patients. I think it is higher than that.”
Even more disturbing: often these therapists are given just a slap on the wrist and allowed to surrender their license in lieu of disciplinary action.
“It’s a cop out, is what it is,” Heather believes.
And many times, it’s less than that; their license is restricted or put on independent probation.
Digging through state orders with Lynette’s Law, 8News uncovered Henrico psychologist who was put on probation back in 2000 for failing to maintain appropriate boundaries and engaging in sexual touching with a patient. But today, his license is unrestricted and he’s currently practicing.
The State Board of Health Professions tells 8News “He was in compliance with all terms and conditions,” and that “an assessment at a behavioral health center found no pathology to interfere with his practice of psychology.”
Still, it’s information you, as a patient, might want to know–but it’s hard to find.
“The only thing we do have in place is the National Practitioners Databank,” Heather says, “and that is not open to the public.”
Another problem in the system we’ve uncovered is many times when these allegations of sexual exploitation pop up, as in the case of former Chesterfield counselor Adam Glatt, the counselor starts state-hopping. Meaning, they leave the state where they’re in trouble and get license to set up shop in another state.
For example, in Glatt’s case, he had been practicing in Florida when a patient filed a complaint in 2012 with the State Department of Health, alleging he introduced her to bondage and domination…a “BDSM lifestyle.”
She says the therapist had sex with her and flogged her.
The victim says, “I found myself in a space of not knowing what to do or where to go.”
While her complain sat with the Board in Florida, Glatt fled to Virginia and had no problem getting a license to practice in Chesterfield County. He was counseling patients here for two years before Virginia suspended his license.
Dr. Stein says our health boards make it easy for counselors like Glatt to state hop; they’re not talking with one another.
“It’s called linkage blindness and we don’t share information,” he says.
Sometimes, not even information about convictions is shared.
When Heather Lynette finally got the courage to file a complaint against her therapist, she discovered the man she had trusted to counsel her one-on-one was a convicted felon in Pennsylvania.
He state-hopped to Maryland where at the time, they didn’t do background checks on mental health counselors.
And neither does Virginia, 8News discovered.
The license application, which we have obtained a copy of, puts onus on the counselor to be honest about any past convictions or disciplinary action.
Meaning, patients may not really know who they’re opening up to.
“There needs to be some kind of registry board where it is posted, where people can see what’s going on,” says Jeanne Hix, who used to work in a mental and substance abuse treatment center in Northern Virginia. She had to walk away, because what she saw was too upsetting.
“I was aware of sexual relations between staff members and clients,” she says. “A lot of times these relationships that go on between staff members and clients are seen as consensual. Well, they’re in treatment, they’re there for a reason.”
State Senator Chap Petersen out of Fairfax is now working with Hix on a patient bill of rights.
“We don’t have sufficient protections in place for our patients,” says Senator Petersen. “You have very vulnerable people, very vulnerable situations highly open for exploitation, so seems to me we need to change and tighten up the law.”
Hix says, “What I am asking for is complete and consistent FBI background checks and I am asking for stricter policies. I am asking for a registered database where people can see who has committed these crimes.”
Meanwhile Heather Lynette is now fighting for other victims: she recently passed Lynette’s Law in Maryland. The measure requires criminal background checks for all mental health professionals. She’s now attempting to get a law passed there that would make it a crime for a counselor to engage in sex with a patient.
“I think our legislators, they need to step in because the public is at risk,” says Heather.
We should point out that here in Virginia, if a therapist becomes sexually involved with a patient it’s a violation of standards, but it is not against the law.
Senator Petersen is planning to put his legislation together in the fall. Meanwhile, Lynette’s Law has started a Facebook page devoted to cases and victims in Virginia, click here to learn more.
Copyright 2014 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond