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USA v. Peterson, et al.

A Legal Commentator Introduces the Trial

R. Christopher Barden

As many leading figures in psychology and psychiatry have noted for decades, the U.S. mental health system is in desperate need of reform. The most serious and widespread problem is the continued use of "psychotherapies" that have never been proven safe and effective by credible scientific research. Many of these "psychotherapies" are harmful or even dangerous. National efforts to reduce widespread fraud and corruption in the mental health system have focused on education, regulation, legislation and litigation (malpractice suits).

Reform efforts have intensified in the last few years as thousands of U.S. families were destroyed by increasingly bizarre "psychotherapies". The most damaging of these quack treatments involved the controversial and unscientific notion of "repressed memories" of childhood abuse. Using well known methods of brainwashing and coercion, irresponsible and often disturbed therapists convinced thousands of vulnerable patients that they had been horribly abused as children. The most bizarre forms of such "treatment" involved convincing patients they suffered from "multiple personalities" and "satanic cult abuse". Such bogus treatments were often wildly expensive and resulted in payments of millions of dollars to the clinics and hospitals who engaged in such "treatments." Many successful malpractice lawsuits against such therapists and hospitals have left the practitioners of "recovered memory therapy" in full retreat.

The United States Department of Justice entered the controversy over "repressed memories" by issuing criminal indictments against several well known practitioners of recovered memory therapy. These criminal indictments of five mental health professionals in Houston have dramatically increased the stakes in the debate over recovered memory therapy . The 60-count indictment is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice has accused the therapists and hospital staff of the Dissociative Disorders Unit of the Spring Shadows Glen hospital in Houston of perpetrating a scheme to defraud insurance firms by allegedly falsely diagnosing patients with multiple personality disorder caused by their alleged participation in a secret satanic cult.

The conspiracy and mail fraud charges include allegations that the defendants "brainwashed" patients, including children, into "relating false experiences and memories about the ‘satanic cult’, and that false medical records were created to substantiate the false diagnoses and treatment." The alleged conspiracy resulted in millions of dollars in insurance payments, according to the federal indictment. These indictments were handed down by a federal Grand Jury and resulted from a detailed investigation by the FBI and the Pension Welfare Benefits Administration of the Department of Labor.

Each of the 60 counts in the indictment carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and, if convicted, the defendants would face sentences under federal guidelines that include no parole provisions. This indictment throws the full weight of the U.S. government against mental health practitioners who believe they can abuse patients with "treatments" lacking any scientific support.

Critics of repressed memory therapies have consistently argued that mental health practitioners induce memories of abuse through inappropriate treatment regimens. The indictment supports these claims by accusing the defendants of fraudulently eliciting "statements of satanic ritual abuse and cult activities from the admitted patients, through nontraditional treatment modalities, including the use of leading or suggestive questions during therapy sessions while the patients were: under hypnosis; under the influence of a drug or combination of drugs; isolated from their families, friends and the outside world; denied certain privileges and freedoms, including uninterrupted sleep; held down by excessive or medically unnecessary physical restraints; or, otherwise by the use of techniques commonly associated with mind control and ‘brainwashing,’ in order to conduct their fraudulent insurance payment enterprises."

The criminal indictments come at a time when psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners have received a drubbing in civil courts by individuals suing after retracting memories recovered during therapy. In highly publicized cases in Minneapolis, Dallas, Chicago and other cities across the U.S. "recovered memory" therapists have suffered multi-million dollar losses via jury verdicts or settlements.

The effects of the lawsuits, licensing board actions against such therapists and now criminal indictments has been devastating. Pamela Freyd, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, noted in one of the organization’s newsletters that "The growth of the recovered/repressed memory movement has been stopped; the number of new lawsuits against parents based only on recovered / repressed memories is negligible. What is happening in the legal area now is critical to how the mopping up will proceed."

After years of banner headlines about malpractice suits and now criminal indictments, the professional associations are finally speaking up on these issues. Last April, the British Royal College of Psychiatry Working Party on Recovered Memories issued a stern warning to the public and psychotherapists that there is no empirical (scientific) evidence supporting the concepts of repression or dissociation. They also note that memory enhancement techniques frequently used in therapy are not safe or effective. In fact, they characterize such procedures as "dangerous methods of persuasion."

The failure of the psychology and psychiatry professions to properly police the practices of mental health professionals has resulted in the tragic destruction of thousands of U.S. families. The American legal system is performing as it should to stop the widespread fraud and corruption resulting from the use of psychotherapy procedures that have no basis in scientific research, logic or common sense.

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