If you have realized that your therapist has been acting unethically and unprofessionally and you have concluded that filing a complaint would be the best course of action for you to take, please, consider the following suggestions for presenting your case to the licensing board in the most effective way possible. (These are not “rules” to follow but general guidelines to keep in mind. Everyone’s circumstances are different and the best “rule” is to follow your own instincts and common sense).
- Make sure you are motivated by the right intention
Filing a complaint would benefit you only if you see it as a stepping stone in your recovery, not a means to an end, which means that the fact that you decided to hold the therapist accountable for their misconduct and the very act of reporting it should be more important for you than a desired outcome.
At the end of the day, I assume, your biggest desire is to heal your wounds, and, while I will not deny for a moment that seeing justice served and feeling vindicated are an important factor in one’s recovery, this is not what ultimately determines if the healing process will take place.
I strongly believe that healing is an inner process that does not depend on outer events and circumstances (assuming the person has left the damaging situation). Believing that the “right” outcome will repair the emotional damage is a trap from which people don’t escape as long as they don’t change the erroneous belief.
The fight for justice WILL contribute into your recovery as long as you don’t get obsessed with it.
Side note: I know this suggestion is not always easy to follow because our feelings do not always match our outlooks. People often can’t let go of the desire to see a particular outcome of their civic action no matter how much they try to convince themselves that they should let go. In a separate post I’ll discuss why this is often the case and what can help you come to the state of mind where you are no longer dependent on how the licensing board or other entities and other people judge your case and how they judge you.
2. Obtain the copies of your therapy records
One of the first things the licensing board may do when they proceed to investigating the case is to obtain the copies your clinical records from your therapist. Therefore, it’s a good idea for you to obtain them beforehand so you’d know what the board will be looking at and if there is anything in the records you find objectionable that you can refute in your complaint.
You don’t have to do that if you feel that reading what your therapist wrote about you in their notes would be too painful and would only aggravate your trauma.
3. Collect all the evidence
By collecting all the evidence I mean collecting ANYTHING you think might be used or even remotely be considered the evidence: every email, text message or other online interaction (social media, blog and forum posts), voice mail, photo, “snail mail” – anything that has been documented through any medium that might be relevant to your complaint and might support your claims.
Leave it to the board to judge the legitimacy of what you have collected. You don’t have to make that assessment. Your job is to present what you have and their job is to evaluate it. Every piece of documented interactions, anything tangible counts. You never know what exactly the investigators will perceive as the legitimate piece of evidence and so the more you present, the greater the chance there will be enough evidence for your case to look credible.
I can’t overstress the importance of organizing all the material you want to present in your complaint.
Keep in mind that licensing boards receive hundreds upon hundreds of complaints each year and so the first impression your complaint gives somebody who reads it is crucial. It may be one single thing that will determine whether the complaint will be given the green light to proceed to the next stage or whether it will go into a trash bin.
If the story is convoluted and incoherent, if it’s categorically and chronologically mixed up, if the main points are not clearly conveyed, if the entire complaint sounds like a rant difficult to understand, it might not look credible enough for the board to spend time on it unless it contains some serious hard evidence that cannot be ignored.
You can organize your complaint any way you want. You can describe the events chronologically or break everything into different categories. However you choose to do it, make sure that everything you describe conveys your points clearly. If you want to make it clear that the therapist had violated professional boundaries, breached confidentiality, engaged in dual relationship, practiced outside of their scope or whatever your claim(s) may be, make sure that the connection between the events you describe and the points you make is clear thus building your case.
5. Do not include your personal opinion about the therapist and their behavior
You have every right to be angry by what was done to you. But the complaint is not the best place to express your anger, not if you want to increase the chance of it succeeding. Angry rants are appropriate in support groups, in your subsequent therapy, on online forums, when talking to friends, family members, writing in your personal journal etc., not when you are trying to resolve your grievance through the system.
Like it or not, the licensing board is not going to be interested in what you think about the therapist and their behavior. Professional boards are interested in facts such as what happened, when it happened, how it happened and what evidence you have to support what you say.
This doesn’t mean you can’t say anything about how the therapist’s actions have affected you. You can and you should inform the board about it. You are a human being and your pain is important, so it’s perfectly appropriate to emphasize that you were damaged in therapy and to to explain in what ways.
But there is a difference between describing the traumatic consequences you have been suffering as a result of the therapist’s actions and let’s say calling the therapist a jerk who should have never entered the profession in the first place or making other emotional statements of a personal nature. Your judgment may be 100% valid, but the formal complaint is simply not the place to express it, as it would certainly not help you achieve your goal.
6. Do not educate the board about ethics
You don’t need to tell the board what specific ethical rules your therapist had broken. Filing a complaint is about telling the board what specific therapist’s actions were hurtful to you and how they were hurtful. It is the board’s job to judge those actions from the legal and the ethical standpoints.
This is not to say you shouldn’t be aware of the professional code of ethics your therapist was supposed to adhere to. By the time you decided to move forward with the complaint you’d already had at least a general idea of what rules had been broken, otherwise you wouldn’t have known that your therapist had done something wrong. Therefore, you can present factual information in your complaint in the way that demonstrates that some particular rules were broken without actually saying it.
7. Proofread it! Probably, more than once
The first thing to do when you have finished this painful, monumental piece of work is to give yourself a pat on the back because what you have just done takes courage and strength and so you have every reason to feel good about yourself. Now, put your complaint far away for at least a few days, relax and do something that would clear your head and reset your brain: go hiking, swimming, take nature walks or just walks, do yoga, massage – do anything that helps you come to balance and feel calm and relaxed.
When you feel ready, open your complaint again and proofread it. Do it two or three times. Take brakes in between if you need to. Evaluate what you have written from the perspective of someone who will read it and who also has never suffered this type of trauma and can’t relate to what you are describing. Ask yourself what that person would think of your complaint. Would it look credible and convincing to them? Then edit the complaint according to your conclusions.
8. Have someone else read it
This step is not necessary but I would highly recommend it if you can find someone who can give you an objective feedback.
The best person to get a feedback from would be an attorney specializing in psychotherapy malpractice. If you manage to find such an attorney who’d be willing to do you a favor and to look at your complaint free of charge it’d be great.
Alternatively, you can ask someone you trust to read the complaint, someone who is aware of your situation but isn’t emotionally involved with it. It’s difficult to find such a person, that’s why this step could be skipped.
9. Send it out and celebrate!
Once you submitted your complaint, celebrate! Seriously.
This deserves celebrating because what you have just done has a profound psychological significance that cannot be underestimated and will not be diminished by any “bad” outcome. By the very act of filing a complaint you have stated to yourself that you are not willing to carry the burden that doesn’t belong to you and that you have taken that load off your shoulders. Whether the system puts that load on the wrongdoer or not, it is no longer yours. You stood up for yourself by what you just did and nothing will change that. Let yourself fully feel the significance of this event.
The next stage
Now, all you need to do is to wait for the board’s response.
If the board proceeds to investigating your case, you’ll be scheduled for an interview with the investigator. This will present another opportunity for you to show that you are a credible person and that your case has merit. After the interview is completed you will have no say in the matter whatsoever.
Depending on your state’s procedures, the interview could be conducted either by phone or in person.
It is my impression that boards investigators are generally polite, friendly and conduct themselves professionally. It is unlikely that the investigator will put you on the spot and ask you “gotcha” questions. Their intention is to collect additional information from you about the case, not to form judgments before all facts are gathered and before the investigation is complete. So, the interview should not be a stressful experience for you and all you will need to do is to simply answer the investigator’s questions in the same objective and factual manner you wrote your complaint. There is no need to make an effort to create a positive impression. If you just stick to answering questions in a neutral way don’t worry about anything else.
Needless to say that just like the complaint is not the best place to process your emotions, especially anger, the interview is also not the best time to do that. The interview situation is a bit different because it’s a conversation during which some of the questions may trigger painful memories and you might feel like crying. If this happens it’s okay to let that sadness show. But try your best not to express your anger at the therapist during the interview, as it might create an unfavorable perception of you. Like it or not, this is the reality of how human perceptions operate and you’ll have to deal with it.
I don’t know if you’ll be interviewed more than once. Every state has their own procedures. But in any case, your participation in the investigative process, most likely, will be limited to the interview(s) only. After the interview is completed, this matter will be completely out of your control, and from now on the best thing you can do for yourself is to shift your focus away from this and to direct it at your healing and getting your life back.