Options for Victims of Therapist Abuse
There are several actions you can take if you find yourself a victim of abuse by a therapist/clergy:
- Do nothing
- Seek out an ethical therapist or support/church group to assist in your healing (Note that it can be challenging for friends and family to grasp the dynamics of this kind of abuse and as a result they may not be a viable source of support and healing)
- File a complaint with the licensing board (You will need to determine which licensing board regulates your provider type) (See Resources page for links)
- Pursue a civil lawsuit (for example, a medical malpractice suit)
- Make a criminal complaint (Note that therapist sexual contact with a patient is considered illegal in only half of our states) (See Resources page for list of states that have legislation regarding therapist sex abuse)
- Request compensation from a victims’ fund (limited to states and organizations that maintain such funds)
- Notify the employer, agency director, or church leader (in the case of clergy acting as counselor) with your complaint
IMPORTANT: If you want to take more than one of these actions (for example, you want to file both a civil complaint and a licensing complaint), the order in which you file the complaints can make a difference. Because of this, I would recommend consulting with an attorney before you go any further.
See my Resources page for the name of a trustworthy attorney who specializes in therapist/clergy abuse. (Link provided here: https://www.sjsperoandassociates.com/) From personal experience, know that attorneys who are not specialists in this type of abuse might not understand your experience and could inadvertently make hurtful comments or ask questions that could potentially compound your trauma.
My Personal Experience with Therapist Abuse
I want to share my experience with the action steps above. Before I begin, I want to emphasize that there are no wrong choices. People need different things in order to heal. Many victims, myself included, felt the need to hold the practitioner accountable in some way. Simply walking away seemed like allowing them to get away with it. Others prefer to leave it all behind and begin the healing process. I can’t speak to that option, but I can tell you that taking action will not be without its stressors.
For me, right after I got away from my abusive psychiatrist, the idea of doing nothing looked very appealing. I didn’t want to tell a soul much less take legal action. Soon, though, I understood that in order to recover I needed to tell someone. To read more about my decision to speak out, see my earlier post, Sexually Abused by a Christian Psychiatrist: An Adult Victim Breaks Her Silence.
After telling my husband what happened, I shared with a friend. She happened to be a licensed social worker in the state of Texas and told me afterwards that she was mandated to report my doctor to the Medical Licensing Board in my state. (See Resources page for links to various reporting agencies).
Filing a Complaint with the Medical Board
I was horrified at the suggestion initially. Weeks later, as the dust settled, I decided I was ready to report him myself. I went to the Oklahoma Medical Board website and stared at the little box on the screen—describe in 500 words or less what happened. I closed my laptop—maybe another day. Luckily, an investigator from the Board called me days later and the process began.
The first step was a friendly phone call with the investigator. I told him everything I could recall about my abusive therapy, and two hours later we were finished. He and a partner met me at my home the following week for an in-person interview. It was nerve-wracking to say the least, but again I was treated with respect. They informed me that the doctor had two choices: one, to surrender his license or two, face a trial with the medical board and they would take the license from him. A trial? Gulp. They asked me if I would be willing to testify in the case of a trial. I said I would.
The doctor was on vacation at the time so the confrontation between the medical board investigators and the doctor took place about a week and a half later. I didn’t get to know anything that took place. It was torture not to know what was happening. They met with the doctor on a Thursday and on Friday he pretended to retire. I had friends calling me in tears because he was leaving, but I promised the medical board investigators I would remain silent.
That was August 2014 and it was mid-September before the doctor signed a document to surrender his license permanently in my state. I learned it was the first “permanent surrender of license” to be issued in Oklahoma in more than 20 years. What a victory! My husband and I celebrated this step in my healing journey, but in time, it wasn’t enough.
Isn’t Therapist Abuse a Crime?
He deserved a criminal charge, but unfortunately his actions were not illegal in my state (therapist sexual abuse is illegal in only half of our states). To find out if therapist abuse is illegal in your state, see the following article from Partners Against Sexual Abuse on my Resources page here: https://amynordhues.com/sample-page/
After consulting a few attorneys on the matter, I decided not to pursue criminal charges. I was told it would be brutal for me and my family, and that the doctor would likely walk.
This is why patients need criminal legal protection—there are no witnesses and the patient will likely be dubbed unstable.
I spoke with a woman who was also a victim of my psychiatrist. She told me the doctor threatened her with things like: “Go ahead and try to tell. I am best friends with the DA, and besides, no one will believe a psychiatric patient.” After I got out, I learned that my abuser was telling his colleagues and friends that I was delusional and had imagined it all. Lucky for me, the medical board believed me, but my abuser would never be “put away” or fined or be registered as a sex offender.
What About a Civil Suit?
I decided my only other feasible option was to pursue a malpractice civil suit. The TELL website hooked me up with an excellent attorney, Stan Spero (contact info on Resources page or see link mentioned earlier) out of Boston. He was able to try my case even though I live out of state by hiring a local attorney, Mark Edwards (contact info on Resources page), to work alongside him. They both did an outstanding job. Stan is a fantastic lawyer who has spent his entire career standing up to bullies–the predators who hide behind a caring therapist mask in order to exploit hurting, vulnerable clients.
My civil suit took 3 long years to resolve. I will tell you there is some frustration in the waiting and some discomfort along the way but seeing it to the end brought a great sense of accomplishment. You are believing in yourself enough to fight back, and there is healing in that; at least, there was for me. The deposition proved the most challenging. The defense attorney mistreated, mocked and belittled me for six long hours, all in an attempt to rattle or discredit me. I felt utterly re-victimized. To say it was unfair would be an understatement.
After the deposition ended, I was enraged. I told my attorney I was an orange belt in karate and could take the other guy, but I decided against it because I realized that would create another deposition. Ha. True story. My case eventually settled out of court and although I’d like to tell you that day felt amazing, it was actually kind of anti-climactic.
God is the Ultimate Avenger
We had won, and I was glad but it wasn’t about winning. It was about advocating for myself and doing the right thing. My abuser still didn’t get what he deserved (ultimately God will handle that), but I valued myself enough to fight even when it was hard, and for that I am proud.
That was key to my healing—accepting that true justice and vengeance were God’s responsibility and not mine.
But, oh, it was hard to sit back and watch the doctor pretend to retire and go on with his life, largely unnoticed, while my family was shattered in pieces. I knew God was fighting for me behind the scenes. I knew He would continue to do what was best for me and my family and that I had to let everything else go. During these excruciating times of waiting and frustration, the following scriptures brought me comfort…
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” Rom 12:9 ESV
“For the LORD your God is going with you! He will fight for you against your enemies, and he will give you victory!” Deut 20:4 NLT
“The LORD himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.” Ex 14:14 NLT
“He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn, and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun.” Ps 37:6 NLT
It can be overwhelming to come out of an abusive situation, just hoping to survive. At that stage, it’s tough to even entertain the idea of reporting or filing charges. Give yourself time to breathe and don’t feel any guilt if you decide to do nothing. Doing nothing is doing something—it’s making the decision to protect yourself from additional grief and stress, and that is sometimes the best decision. If in time you feel ready, you can contact the appropriate licensing board or seek legal counsel. Or perhaps you will find an ethical professional to help you sort it all out. In time, I found a great therapist and it proved to be a positive and healing experience.
I am happy to talk to any victim who would like to brainstorm the next steps to take. On my Resources page, you will find many helpful links such as a list of licensing boards, a link to my attorneys and more. If I can be of any assistance, please reach out!
You are not alone and it is not your fault!
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