June 2, 2013

Advocates of therapist abuse bill call for removal of professional board

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Heather Sinclair with Attorney General Doug Gansler.

Heather Sinclair with Attorney General Doug Gansler.

By Becca Heller

Becca@MarylandReporter.com

Bill signing of HB 56

The governor signed HB56, requiring background checks for professional therapists and counselors. Back row, from left, is sponsor Del. Mike Smigiel, Mike Ricksecker and Heather Sinclair. Her two boys are in the front row with, from left, Senate President Mike Miller, Gov. Martin O’Malley and House Speaker Michael Busch.

After an unsuccessful bid to criminalize the sexual abuse of patients by their therapists,  supporters of Lynette’s Law are demanding the removal of some key members on the Board of Professional Therapists and Counselors (BOPC) — their biggest opponents in last session’s bill hearings.

During weeks of contentious debate between the BOPC and bill-sponsor Del. Mike Smigiel, R-Cecil, and advocate Heather Sinclair, the professional board allegedly made repeated personal attacks against Sinclair, as she bared her problems before legislators, testifying about her own experience with sexual abuse by a therapist. (See earlier story.)

“I know for a fact that they met with at least one senator saying that this was a personal issue for me, trying to undermine my credibility,” said Sinclair. “In no other situations have I seen a woman be attacked in a public arena except for in other cases of rape and sexual assault. So I kind of expected that.”

The professional board is charged with protecting patients by holding mental health professionals accountable for ethical violations. Smigiel said he is furious with their seemingly hypocritical opposition to his bill and their victimization of Sinclair.

“It’s absolutely unconscionable for them to intimidate people like Heather,” Smigiel said. “It takes so much courage to come out, and it would be a shame if others who had the courage to take that step were afraid to come before their elected officials because of the board’s aggressive and intimidating behavior.”

Heather Sinclair with Attorney General Doug Gansler.

Heather Sinclair with Attorney General Doug Gansler.

Board files ethics complaint against Smigiel

The animosity goes both ways. The board recently filed an ethics complaint against Smigiel for discourteous decorum during the bill hearing.

The complaint, which was dismissed unanimously by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, criticized Smigiel’s interactions with BOPC Executive Director Tracy DeShields.

Still, the Joint Committee gave Smigiel a slap on the wrist, sending him a notice that they would be forwarding the complaint to the speaker of the House.

“It is apparent to the Joint Committee that uncivil and indecorous conduct occurred and it reflects poorly on the entire General Assembly,” they wrote in the notice.

In 12 years as a delegate, Smigiel said he has never been the recipient of such a complaint, and he asserts that this complaint was a result of the board’s obvious embarrassment during his questioning of DeShields in regards to the definition of rape in the context of a therapist-client relationship.

“It is alleged I am unethical for pointing out the Board’s inconsistency and incompetency,” Smigiel responded on his website. “I was sent here to kick down the gates of hell if necessary, in order to stop this very type of behavior, and I am sorry if that makes some Government incompetents uncomfortable.”

Board executive director cannot be reached for comment

When contacting the board for comment, BOPC Investigator Karen Wamsley simply said “I have no idea what you’re talking about” before agreeing to pass the message on to DeShields for comment.  DeShields did not respond.

Smigiel and Sinclair, in response to what they see as the board’s callous behavior and inconsistent rhetoric, are calling for an overhaul of current board members.

Smigiel reaches out to health secretary

“The board needs to be reconfigured,” said Smigiel, who has reached out to Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, with his concerns. “When I talked to Sharfstein he got it.”

Sharfstein did not respond to a request for comment. But health department spokeswoman Dori Henry said, “We are aware that Del. Smigiel has concerns, and we are reaching out for more information so his concerns can be reviewed.”

Smigiel said he intends to reintroduce the therapist-abuse legislation next session. He and Sinclair are pushing hard for the removal of Tracy DeShields and Richard Hann from the BOPC, including circulating a petition to have them removed.