During my practicum and internship in a private practice several years ago, I remember often looking up on the wall at the doctorate degree diploma hanging beside my supervisor’s desk. (I’ll refer to this supervisor as Dr. S.) Something about its design didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly seemed out of place. The imperfect calligraphy made the framed document seem manufactured, but who was I to proclaim that?
As a counseling master’s student, I was there to learn through observation and experience, not to question Dr. S’s academic journey. On occasion, however, I would inquire about the college listed on the diploma, only to be told that it no longer existed. Dr. S often stated that he carried his transcripts in his briefcase in the event he ever needed to provide proof of the courses he took. Still, the longer I spent time at his practice, the more unsettled I became. Mental alarms began going off.
The treatment rooms in the former Victorian train station had paper-thin walls. Because I positioned myself in an empty room adjoining Dr. S’s office to work on my tasks, hearing client sessions was not difficult. One particular red flag surfaced early in my time in the office when I discovered that Dr. S felt a need to be dishonest with me. As each client settled into his or her room, Dr. S was supposed to ask permission to include me in the session. Most of the time, he would summon me to join the session. But other times, he would tell me — after the client had left — that the client had not wanted me in the room. What was disturbing to me on these occasions was that Dr. S had not really asked the clients whether I could join their sessions. Eventually I noted that I was excluded from sessions in which clients had issues related to workers’ compensation.
On the occasions when I did accompany Dr. S in sessions, it became more and more evident that he did not have any formal training in psychotherapy. The large majority of the words spoken during these sessions belonged to him. Dr. S mainly talked about himself, not about the clients’ issues. According to the CACREP-accredited training I was receiving at the University of Colorado, counselors were not supposed to talk about themselves but rather should be present for the client in person-centered mode.
I’ll never forget witnessing one client who was crying. Dr. S didn’t offer any empathy or professional help. Instead, he began talking about himself and then swiftly stated that time was up for that session, leaving the client an emotional mess.
A series of red flags
Another red flag arose when Dr. S allowed a troubled young teenager access to all of the client files for sorting as a way to earn community service hours to appease the courts regarding her juvenile sentence. This teen was the daughter of a famous rock star who had died years earlier. Dr. S had previously provided therapy to this girl and her sister and developed a friendship with their mother. As a new student, I had difficulty determining whether this crossed the lines of the dual relationship we were learning about. But it became very evident that Dr. S reveled in associating with others who had attained fame. His walls reflected this, with framed photos featuring what now would be called selfies.
Dr. S took me out to a country club and other restaurants for luncheons. He often promised to introduce me to important professionals in the community but never followed through. A few months into my practicum, Dr. S began making plans for me to join his practice as a colleague and to turn my time there into a paid position as an unlicensed psychotherapist. He freely began uploading my photo and mini bio on his website and declared me an associate, only afterward sharing with me what he did.
One thing became clear almost immediately: a penchant for demonstrating his grandiose personality. Dr. S often bragged about where he had been in life, what he had accomplished and his service in the Navy. He was quite proud of having been a student at the University of Notre Dame, where he claimed to have earned his bachelor’s degree. He also spoke fondly of supporting the Make a Wish Foundation. His experiences as a forensic psychologist in the courtroom were often described with pride. His curriculum vitae (CV) was laden with court cases he said he had been hired to testify in as a forensic psychologist. Another achievement he proudly discussed in my midst regarded how he had secured contracts with the military and a local law enforcement office to provide psychological evaluations for soldiers serving overseas and potential police officer candidates. Many times, Dr. S tasked me to score these exams. Years later I discovered that one significant criterion for scoring these tests was for the scorer to possess a Ph.D.
Nearing the completion of my first semester of internship, Dr. S invited my spouse and me to his house for dinner. Following dinner, he guided us to the living room where he laid out various blueprints of potential new office complexes he was considering moving his business to. He had recently received a notice to vacate from the landlord of the Victorian. While explaining the benefits of each office space, he peppered the conversation with promises of one of the offices being mine — potentially the nicest one. As I listened to him, it became very clear that he was asking me to invest thousands of dollars to secure the lease of one of the offices. He gently reminded me that his credit was wrecked because of a divorce and trouble with the IRS.
Red flags began billowing all around me, fervently waving me in the direction of the door. My discomfort was evident to my spouse, so on my cue, we excused ourselves, thanking Dr. S for a lovely dinner.
An abrupt ending
Late one evening following the dinner, Dr. S and I were instant messaging, planning out the following week. Dr. S indicated he was inebriated. Soon thereafter, I was the recipient of inappropriate comments that crossed the line of professionalism. As the conversation waned, I gathered the strength to call Dr. S out on his expectations that I would max out my student loans to finance his move. Immediately, he realized that I was on to his scheme.
His response was to tell me not to come into the office and that he would be notifying my professor that he was breaking my second semester internship contract. In turn, I contacted my internship professor and relayed my concerns regarding Dr. S, his credentials and my contract. This professor set up an appointment to meet with Dr. S and me to gain greater clarity of the situation.
As I sat in the office with my professor, it took all the strength I could muster not to cry over the manner in which I was being treated. Along with being dismissed came an inability to access my clients for closure. When I voiced these concerns, Dr. S stated that I did not have clients — they were his clients. Dr. S disclosed to my professor that the reason he could no longer supervise me was because the company with which he had the defense contract said it would no longer do business with him as long as I had access to his clients’ records.
That moment solidified for me the lengths Dr. S would go to in constructing his lies. As we left the office, I confided to my professor how embarrassed and humiliated I was to be put through the meeting. I also explained how I knew Dr. S was lying. Tears surfaced quickly as I stood on the sidewalk, feeling the need to defend myself to my professor. She reassured me that she didn’t think any less of me and encouraged me to stay strong. She voiced certainty that I would be able to find another place at which to spend my second internship semester.
As the months passed and I gained more academic knowledge of counseling concepts, the easier it was for me to identify Dr. S’s questionable practices. Intrigued by the inconsistencies I had uncovered, I began digging deeper. It didn’t take long to find that his Ph.D. was a fraud, as were his other degrees and many of the claims on his CV. This meant that Dr. S’s counseling license in Colorado had been obtained with false credentials that were never verified by the state.
At the same time I was researching the validity of Dr. S, a psychologist whom I’ll call Dr. P was looking for me. Dr. P had compiled a massive amount of evidence concerning the fraudulent practices of Dr. S. Her investigation had uncovered several associates of Dr. S who also had false credentials, and Dr. P wondered if I might be among them because she had found the information Dr. S had posted about me on the practice’s website. Although Dr. P had been speaking out against Dr. S for years, no one would listen. In fact, the state of Colorado had reprimanded Dr. P, deeming her a nuisance because she repeatedly brought concerns to the state’s attention. Dr. P refused to give up because she believed that what Dr. S was doing not only constituted fraud but also represented a danger to the mental health industry.
Finally, award-winning investigative journalist Dave Phillips paid attention, patiently listening to Dr. P, taking a plethora of notes and asking a multitude of questions for clarification. Phillips then immersed himself in an investigation. For months, Phillips contacted all of the higher education institutions from which Dr. S claimed to have graduated. In the process, Phillips uncovered deep inconsistencies in the CV that Dr. S so proudly posted on his website and provided to professional associates, as well as other egregious fallacies related to Dr. S.
Finally, in February 2011, Dr. S surrendered his counseling license to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agency. However, it would take another year for the surrender to be finalized. Most recently, Phillips discovered that although Dr. S lost his license, shut down his business, filed bankruptcy, sold his house and moved, he is once again using his “skills” to continue working in the mental health industry.
A vulnerable population
This story is so important to share. I have had several years now to reflect on the impact of Dr. S’s actions. Professional counselors are taught about the vulnerable nature of clients and how they can be deeply harmed by ineffective therapy practices. But what seems largely overlooked is the harm that counseling students can experience when the supervisors whom they trust have not been properly authenticated and licensed by state regulatory agencies.
Students are in between two entities — their counseling program and their supervisor — both of which are overseeing the student’s performance. Students are as vulnerable as our clientele. They are still learning how to perform psychotherapy techniques along with the theories of therapy. Students don’t possess the proper experience, nor is it their responsibility, to ferret out fraudulent practices. They are just learning ethics in counseling, the purpose for regulatory agencies and procedures for reporting abuse.
It took me years to speak out about my experiences in Dr. S’s practice. Once I realized that Dr. S might be a fraud, I was very concerned about the legitimacy of my time under him in supervision. I even had concerns about finding a place to complete my internship requirements in a community already saturated with counseling students from various academic institutions. But now that Dr. S has been outed and has lost his license, I feel relieved.
So students, beware! Report your suspicions to your professors. And if they don’t take you seriously, keep moving up the chain until someone hears you.
Vanessa Dahn is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and executive director of Safe Landing Group Center LLC. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For an in-depth article on counselor supervision, see the November cover story “A steadying hand”: wp.me/p2BxKN-3J1