How to Present Your Case Most Effectively When Filing a Complaint

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).

  1. 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.

4. Organize!

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.

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12 Comments  comments 

12 Responses

  1. Sue

    Awesome!! Amazing that this hasn’t been done before. Yes!!

    A few comments I thought of since my experience is so super fresh.

    1. Getting an attorney to read for free was impossible for me. And it was almost as impossible to just find one will to read for an hourly rate (vs. taking on a case with lots of money.) In the end the quote I got was $800 for reading my complaint (one hour) and commenting ( twenty minutes.) That felt like too much money and I wasn’t suing so I said…no to that direction. I kinda had to say that I’m not asking for any compensatory damages so I’m going to do the best job I can do on my own. I did have a great editor read mine and that cost me $75.

    2. Getting records. I didn’t do this and I kind of gulped when I read it wondering if I should have. But…I think for me it could have been hugely triggering. I am not sure I want to see any shrink’s notes on me. Also, I was wondering if tipping off a therapist by requesting records is not strategic? Would be interested in hearing what you have to say.

    3. Gathering all the evidence and putting it in. For me, I had a ton of emails my therapist and I exchanged. So I chose to only include emails that supported a chronological narrative and told the Board that more was available upon request. I don’t know–I just filed–so maybe this wasn’t the way to go. I just didn’t want to overwhelm and fatigue a reader.

    4. Clarity and time. I think between being traumatized, gathering evidence, finding your chronology–let alone writing it–takes time–and lots and lots of it. It took me two years after the bad therapy to be clear enough to begin writing the complaint–and then another four months to actually write it, edit, send it to an editor and do the emotional work required to hit send. Of course this is for long term emotional abuse in therapy vs. perhaps a “clearer” one or two incident complaint.

    Hope these thoughts help a bit and thanks so much for this–you are helping lots of people–me included!!

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Thank you for your thoughts. I now see that I should make it clear that my suggestions are not instructions. They certainly don’t need to be strictly followed and some of them can be dismissed if they don’t serve the person’s individual situation. Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different and so, under the circumstances, you just do the best you can.

      1. I did mention that paying for a legal consultation is not necessary and that one may consider it only if the money is not an object for them and they want to do that. I had an attorney look at my complaint for free, so whenever this is possible it’s a nice option.

      2. I perfectly understand the resistance to looking at what the therapist wrote about you in the records. It could be and it often is highly triggering. I should, probably,mention that in my post. Some people, however, myself included, still choose to get the copies or the summary of the records before filing a complaint. It is entirely one’s personal choice. I found knowing what my therapist wrote about me before reporting him helpful. I wrote my objections to every item of the records I found objectionable. That way I felt like I also had a voice in the matter and that his presentation of the case wouldn’t go unchallenged. Other people may feel like looking at the records would be too much to deal with when they are already dealing with so much pain, and that is totally valid.

      I am not sure what you mean by tipping off a therapist by requesting records being strategic. I didn’t really see my request of records as tipping off a therapist in a sense of giving them a warning that I am going to take some action (if that’s what you mean by “tipping off”). I needed to see the records for my own purpose which I explained.

      3. As to the evidence, I didn’t have tons but I had a significant amount to go through and to sort out. It was also a painful process, as you can imagine. I selected a limited number of things that supported my points and included them in the body of the complaint. I attached all the rest to the complaint and “snail mailed” the entire package. I had no idea if I would get a chance to submit the rest later so I decided to do it that way. I didn’t use the online submission form.

      4. Yeah, clarity is a challenge when you have to put in writing highly triggering, traumatic material while you are still struggling with the aftermath of what happened. Yet, it is necessary if people want to have any chance of their complaint passing the initial scrutiny. This is just one of the things that are facts of life which are not going to change no matter how unfair they are and no matter how much we hate them. This is one of those situation where we either accept the reality for what it is and deal with it or we don’t accept it, in which case we won’t be able to deal with it as effectively as we can.

      • Sue

        Thanks for your response, Marina! Yeah, what I meant was tipping off your therapist when asking for records that you’re up to something. For example, after terminating two years ago I’ve never contacted my therapist. If I wrote now she’d be suspicious. I guess maybe it doesn’t matter but I would prefer to not give her any kind of heads-up, time to prepare, etc. And also as mentioned I do not think I want to see her bat sh*t crazy notes on me that might be really triggering.

        I think your main point about really doing this for you and your healing vs. expectation of an outcome is HUGE. But honestly I didn’t know how huge it was until I filed! I also think a point you make in another post about filing a complain is critical: you really have nothing to lose by doing it as long as you do not become hugely attached to outcomes. I am looking forward to your post on that too! I am trying to think of my own situation and how I’ve wound up in a place right now where I don’t care what happens. I think there’s something perhaps about the process of coming to the place of wanting to write the complaint–then writing it, etc.–how that happens–that might be helpful in leading you to a place where it’s easier to let go of expectations? Dunno…

        Anyway thanks again–fantastic and so helpful.

        • Marina Tonkonogy

          Ok, I just “cleaned up” the post a little bit, so I hope it is less confusing now and a little easier to read and understand.

          Yeah..I understand why some people don’t want to see their therapy records. As I said, you certainly shouldn’t if it’s too triggering for you. As far as not wanting to give the therapist a heads up, I understand the thought process behind it, but the therapist will have time to prepare in any case :-). When they are contacted by the board they are given enough time to consult with an attorney before they respond and most of them do. So, in terms of their preparedness it really doesn’t matter if they get the idea that you are up to something 6 months before you do it or if it’s already done.

          I will now work on the post discussing how to let go of the outcome as these two are interconnected.

          Thanks a lot for your comments and suggestions! This is what helps me build the website’s content so mucho gracias!

  2. Sue

    Hi Marina,

    Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from the Board that said:

    Dear ___:

    This is to acknowledge receipt of your complaint regarding the above-named individual. We are currently reviewing the information you provided in order to determine the appropriate course of action.

    If additional information is needed you will be contacted by the analyst assigned to your case. We appreciate the information you have provided and thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention.


    Enforcement Unit

    Is this the standard letter? Did you receive something similar?



    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Hi Sue,

      Yes, this is the standard initial response from the board. So, now, just keep your fingers crossed and wait for the next letter. The next letter you want to see is the one that says that they found that your complaint warrants investigation and that you will be contacted again. Until then just try to relax and not to think about it. I know, it’s easier said than done 🙂 But one thing you already know for certain and that is that this process is now out of your hands. So, now, as much as you can, try to focus on your health and well-being.

  3. Sue

    Thanks Marina. I got another letter today asking me to sign a release and also asking for me to show proof of therapeutic relationship (e.g. cancelled checks, etc.) I sent everything back same day, certified mail. I’m going to try and do what you say and try and focus on the space and mental health this has already cleared for me by filing. Thanks again! 🙂

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Great! I am glad they asked you to sign a release already! This could mean that they intend to investigate. In my case, they asked me to sign a release after they informed me that there will be investigation..if I remember correctly. Anyway, you have sent the papers back already, which is great. Just try to relax for now and treat yourself with something nice 🙂 You deserve some good time after what you’ve accomplished regardless of the results.

  4. Jennifer

    Re: #3. I have a massive amount of relevant emails, texts, pictures for evidence. I’d love to use it all but I can’t. The report would end up being 200 pages at least. My question to you is how much is too much? Meaning, is a 25-30 page report too much for the committee to have to go through? It’s difficult for me to find the balance in making my report. It feels too long yet I need to be thorough and clear in making my case. Thank you for any advice you may have on this.

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Hi Jennifer,

      I just came back from vacation so sorry for delaying a response.

      If the amount of your evidence is so overwhelming then I’d suggest to select what you believe to be the most convincing of the therapist’s misconduct and then to write in your report that you have much more in your possession and that you can present it to the board at any time upon their request. I would also try to fit the whole story in no more than 20-25 pages. While it is important to give an elaborate enough description of what happen for the board to get the picture, you also don’t want to overwhelm the person who is going to read the report. Your main task is to tell the story in such a way that would convince the reader that your case needs to be investigated. For this you need to pick the most important points to highlight in your report and to build the rest of it around those points.

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