Patients hurt by abuse of power

This week’s question comes from Harriette in Marin, who asks:

Q: “I entered therapy about five years ago to deal with some issues involving sexual abuse as a minor. I had struggled with relationships and self-esteem for years. I wanted to heal and move forward with my life to establish safe, healthy relationships. My therapist was a man who works with a large health care provider. He said it would be good for my process to work with a man, as that is where my trauma lay: abuse by a relative who was a man. After a year, my therapist and I became intimate. First, it was in the office during sessions. Then, it progressed to meetings outside, including my home. He was married but said he would leave his wife. I thought this was good for me; I felt loved by a man who was stable. I became pregnant and had his baby. My best friend pressured me for the name of the father. I resisted. Then, he stated that he could not be my therapist anymore and questioned my fidelity, accusing me of sleeping with someone else. I was crushed. My baby will be born in two months. My friend says I need a lawyer. Am I at fault? He didn’t rape me — I guess I consented — but I feel foolish and betrayed.”

A: Harriette, first I want to say that you should not feel foolish or at fault at all. Therapy employs a phenomenon called “transference,” in which the therapist does, in effect, adopt the characteristics of a trusted advisor. A patient can redirect his or her emotions and feelings, often unconsciously, to the therapist. Sigmund Freud was the one who made the concept and technique generally accepted and employed.

Your therapist abused that position of trust. We have handled many of these cases, and the women start out feeling remorse for allowing themselves to get into this position. Over time, their feelings change to where they are empowered by the legal process, which, while difficult, can act as a form of vindication.

California has strict legal prohibitions against inappropriate behavior during therapy. For example:

California Business Code, Section 729, sexual exploitation by physicians, surgeons, psychotherapists or alcohol and drug abuse counselors reads as follows: (a) Any physician and surgeon, psychotherapist, alcohol and drug abuse counselor who engages in an act of sexual intercourse, sodomy, oral copulation, or sexual contact with a patient or client, or with a former patient or client when the relationship was terminated primarily for the purpose of engaging in those acts, unless the physician and surgeon, psychotherapist, or alcohol and drug abuse counselor has referred the patient or client to an independent and objective physician and surgeon, psychotherapist, or alcohol and drug abuse counselor recommended by a third-party physician and surgeon, psychotherapist, or alcohol and drug abuse counselor for treatment, is guilty of sexual exploitation by a physician and surgeon, psychotherapist, or alcohol and drug abuse counselor. (b) Sexual exploitation by a physician and surgeon, psychotherapist, or alcohol and drug abuse counselor is a public offense which can lead to six months in jail and/or  a fine of $1,000.00 for a first offense and if there are multiple acts. If there are two or more victims the crime shall be punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code for a period of up to 16 months, two years, or three years, and a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000). In no instance shall consent of the patient or client be a defense.

In addition to criminal penalties, a therapist loses his or her license if an investigation by the California Medical Board substantiates the complaint. Therefore, you should report this to the California Medical Board.

Pursuant to California Civil Code, Section 43.93, you also have a right to institute a civil action to recover money damages. A cause of action against a psychotherapist for sexual contact exists for a patient or former patient for injury caused by sexual contact with the psychotherapist, if the sexual contact occurred under any of the following conditions: (1) during the period the patient was receiving psychotherapy from the psychotherapist; (2) within two years following termination of therapy; (3) by means of therapeutic deception.

The patient or former patient may recover damages from a psychotherapist who is found liable for sexual contact. It is not a defense to the action that sexual contact with a patient occurred outside a therapy or treatment session or that it occurred off the premises regularly used by the psychotherapist for therapy or treatment sessions. No cause of action shall exist between spouses within a marriage.

Pursuant to the California Civil Code 340.5, there are statutes of limitations under which a case must be brought within limited time periods or it could be barred. There are many exceptions including fraud and, under some conditions, continued treatment. You should contact a good trial lawyer to go after this bad therapist.

Finally, in addition to the aforementioned, the therapist can be held responsible in family court for his obligations as a father to help financially raise your child.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to

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