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USA v. Peterson, et al.

What About Professional Standards?


Spencer Harris Morfit

October 9, 1998

Spencer Harris Morfit is a professional journalist and author who lives in Westford, Massachusetts. Over the past ten years she has written and spoken extensively on the "false" or "recovered" memory phenomenon. This includes appearances on talk radio shows nationally. Her writings include Challenge to Psychotherapy, which was the first article published by a non-professional in the Journal of Sex Education and Therapy (Winter, 1994). As a result of her work she was appointed to the Scientific and Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome in 1995, a board mostly comprised of therapeutic professionals.

Ms. Morfit acknowledges that at this point she has a clear position on many of these issues. "Some would call this a ‘bias,’" she says, "but I have done ten years of homework on these issues and if it is a bias it is a considered one." She says that although the views she expresses here are personal opinion, she is not an accused nor an accuser, not a therapist nor a plaintiff in a malpractice case, and she hopes the questions she raises may further some of the debate about these issues.

The opinions below are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

A number of professional therapists -- including members of the Scientific and Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation -- are upset about this Houston trial. They argue that the defendants in the case are probably true believers, but not criminals. They are concerned that it might set a precedent for unhappy patients to bring criminal charges against their therapists. What about this?

First, this case is not about therapy, at least not directly. It is about fraud. In order to convict the defendants, the burden is on the prosecution to make a good case -- a "beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt" case -- that the defendants were not only acting in ways that harmed their patients, but that their behavior was intentional and motivated. The prosecution will do its best to argue that the trail of insurance claims provides motivation, while certain patterns of apparent lies and directives to staff members demonstrate awareness and intent.

So why is there so much testimony about the treatment of patients at Spring Shadows Glen? There are three reasons. The first is that such testimony is intended to establish the means by which the defendants carried out their alleged fraud. The second is that some of the testimony has to be set against corroboration -- such as medical records or testimony of third parties -- to establish credibility (or the lack thereof) in the witnesses or the defendants. The third would be to raise questions about whether and under what conditions either the witnesses or the defendants might have told different stories to different people -- and why?

Does that mean, then, that what sure looks like extreme -- not to say "abusive" -- treatment is irrelevant to the case? That’s a hard one to answer completely, but, yes, the extreme treatment and the harm it did to the patients is in some ways irrelevant here. This is probably an aspect of the trial that will be most upsetting to a sensitive audience, but it is nevertheless true.

Does this mean, then, that victims in this case are not entitled to some sort of justice? No! Even professionals who are concerned about this criminal trial have said they can see grounds for malpractice cases. In fact, most of the patient witnesses in this trial have already sought redress through the civil courts for malpractice and have won settlements. In most cases, the victims would prefer a malpractice trial because in a civil suit they have a chance to win the financial support they need to make themselves whole again -- with a lower standard of proof. In saying they see grounds for malpractice, but not fraud, professionals are acknowledging that treatments might not have been in line with standard practice, that they might have produced harm, etc. They are saying there is reason to question the methods, but not the motivation.

So does this trial have nothing to say about therapeutic practice? This is where I differ with some of my colleagues: I say it does. Even if we acknowledge that the defendants might have been true believers (and I do believe there were some true believers who are not defendants in this case) that raises questions about professional practice. And the biggest questions to me are these:

How in the world did such wild beliefs in satanic cults, past life experiences, and multiple personality disorders with thousands of "alters" etc. ever become acceptable in a so-called "professional community" in the first place? Put another way: Never mind the true believers now, what about the beliefs? If they were not acceptable, why are we still waiting for the major professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association to take clear and complete stands on these issues, despite the fact that lawsuits around the Country are overwhelmingly being won against therapists?

If such practices were not acceptable, then why didn’t colleagues or professional associations initiate actions against the therapists who used them? How does a diagnosis, such as "multiple personality disorder" or "dissociative identity disorder" gain a place in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association? Only to become highly controversial thereafter?

If clinicians have no concern for corroborating the "memories" that surface in therapy, then what does that say about the ground upon which their clinical theory rests?

With no corroboration, how do therapists test their own hypotheses and how can therapists tell when their own fingerprints are all over the patients? Hypnosis has long been in clinical use. Why are we only now understanding its liabilities? If these theories are thought to be in error now, but were accepted practice during the period covered by the trial, that implies that the tide of opinion has changed. And if that is so, where are the efforts of the clinicians, individually and collectively to acknowledge and apologize to their patients and to make efforts at reparation?

Where are the efforts of the professional community to codify this experience into higher standards for clinical theory and professional practice?

Spencer Harris Morfit

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