The complaint against the above organisational member was taken to Adjudication in line with the Professional Conduct Procedure.
The complaint was heard under the BACP Professional Conduct Procedure and the Panel considered the alleged breaches of the BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions.
The focus of the complaint, as summarised by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, was that the Complainant attended a Four Day Essentials of Psychosynthesis course on the 21st to 24th July Year 1, run by the Psychosynthesis Trust.
The Complainant stated that whilst she did not wish to train in psychosynthesis she wished to attend for self-improvement. Open therapy sessions, involving one person acting as client in front of an audience, were mentioned on Day 1, but as the Complainant understood that these were voluntary she did not add her name to the list. At the end of the first day, when a tutor mentioned that she had not put her name down, she explained that she was not bothered about attending these sessions.
On the second day, following a group exercise, the Complainant wrote down her ‘wants’, including not wanting to be on the course, and wanting to be at home. She complained that she told a tutor that she did not feel safe or at ease, but that the tutor did not appear to hear her and walked away.
The Complainant complained that later that day she was twice approached by tutors or tutor assistants, suggesting she put her name down for the Open Sessions. She reported that she is [ . . . ] and therefore agreed to have a session early in the evening with another course member agreeing to take a different slot. Having spoken to the other course member, the Complainant reported that neither were happy with the change but having looked unsuccessfully for a tutor, they left things as they were. The Complainant reports that by now she felt bullied and coerced into taking part.
At the beginning of the session, the Complainant explained that she felt she had been bullied into having the session and she was afraid of undoing two years of [ . . . ]. She reported that the therapist told her that whilst she should not have been bullied, nevertheless this session was not about the Complainant but was a training tool. The Complainant stated that she became very distressed, eventually feeling [ . . .]. The therapist reportedly did nothing. The Complainant reported that she felt [ . . . ]. At the end of the session she reports that she had a short and unsatisfactory debriefing.
The Complainant did not return the next day, leaving a message on the office answerphone. A tutor rang her later, asking her to return but she refused.
The Complainant complained to the Trust about her experience of the open therapy session. She stated that the response, although polite, missed the main points of her complaint which are:
• She was ignored when she told one of the tutors that she did not feel safe;
• She was used in an open therapy session against her wishes;
• She told the therapist that she wasn’t happy to proceed and was told “this isn’t about you”;
• Despite her becoming increasingly distressed the session was not stopped nor the audience asked to leave; and
• The Complainant could hear crying from the audience and assumes that at least one of them found the situation distressing to watch.
The Panel, in considering the complaint, only put forward allegations for which it was satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to suggest there was a case to answer. The Panel, in accepting this complaint, was concerned with the allegations and information set out within the complaint suggesting contravention of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions, and those in particular as follows:
1. In contravention of paragraph 21 of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions, the Psychosynthesis Trust, in conducting the Complainant’s open therapy session on 22 July Year 1, allegedly failed to respect its client’s privacy and dignity in that it did not have in place adequate safeguards to ensure that open therapy sessions were ended if the client became openly distressed.
2. In contravention of paragraph 26 of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions, the Psychosynthesis Trust, in conducting the Complainant’s open therapy session on 22 July Year 1, allegedly failed to do all that it reasonably could to ensure that its client was participating on a voluntary basis in that it didn’t ensure its facilitators ended sessions if the client unambiguously showed they didn’t want to participate.
3. In contravention of paragraph 47(e) of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions, the Psychosynthesis Trust, in its handling of the Complainant’s complaint, allegedly failed to ensure candour by promptly informing its client of anything important that has gone wrong in their work together, and investigate and take action to avoid whatever had gone wrong being repeated, in that it did not conduct an adequate investigation of the complaint or take steps to ensure future participants in the course did not experience distress due to the open therapy sessions.
In addition to paragraphs 21, 26 and 47(e) of the Ethical Framework, Psychosynthesis Trust’s alleged behaviour, as experienced by the Complainant also suggested a contravention of the principles of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (2016) of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy, Beneficence and Non-Maleficence, and showed a lack of the personal moral qualities of Care, Empathy, Respect and Wisdom to which counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire.
In relation to each of the allegations put to Psychosynthesis Trust, having fully considered the above, the Panel made the following findings:
1. The Panel heard from X who gave evidence on behalf of Psychosynthesis Trust. X described Psychosynthesis Trust as a charitable educational trust providing both training programmes and therapy underpinned by psychosynthesis. The course it runs include a 2 year Post Graduate Diploma and a 2-year Masters Degree.
X gave evidence that Psychosynthesis Trust has 11-12 employees plus a team of delivery staff who are freelance contractors. The day to day business is run by the Executive Team [ . . . ], with oversight provided by a Trustee Board. X explained that X is accountable for program delivery, which includes the delivery of the Essentials of Psychosynthesis course (‘the course’).
Describing the course as ‘experiential’, X said it was expected that ‘participants would have painful experiences’, but that they were appropriately supported by the tutors and assistants running the course who are all trained therapists. X explained that support is usually provided ‘in the room and is part of the experience’, although other interventions may occasionally be needed. The decision is at the discretion of the course leader. The course is reviewed by [ . . . ] program executive team who consider feedback received from participants.
The Panel enquired how participants are selected; X said they complete an application form, and if this highlights a need for further information, Psychosynthesis Trust contacts them direct. Looking at the Complainant’s application, X said there were no contraindications that would have triggered direct contact with the Complainant. Beyond this X said that Psychosynthesis Trust did not take steps to ensure that therapists working with the course had seen and reviewed the application forms for any relevant information about participants.
X’s attention was drawn to the copies of Psychosynthesis Trust’s website information about the course and confirmed that it did not make it clear that the scheduled evening sessions were an optional, voluntary aspect of the course. X said, ‘I expect people’s expectation is that these are part of the course’. But X emphasised that Psychosynthesis Trust respects participant’s autonomy; they have the choice whether to attend the evening sessions and they are told they have a choice on day 1 of the course. X explained that if anyone asked what the consequence of not attending the evening sessions would be, they would be told there would be none. But X admitted that Psychosynthesis Trust does not require the delivery team to explicitly state this if the question is not asked. X said, ‘the Trust vests in the therapists to make a judgement’.
X confirmed that the course is delivered by a team of freelance therapists, two of whom have been delivering the course since it began about 20 years ago. The Panel asked how new freelance therapists are selected and recruited. X replied that they would usually be Psychosynthesis Trust graduates and would start by assisting on the course. If the more experienced freelance therapists endorsed an individual, they may be offered a place on the delivery team. X emphasised that all freelance delivery staff must be professionally qualified and agree to be bound by their professional body’s codes.
When asked what was in place to protect the participants’ privacy and dignity in relation to the evening sessions X referred the Panel to the application form, the course structure, the autonomy to choose sessions or opt out, the number of trained therapists present, the opportunity to explore concerns, the sign-up process and the way the sessions are run with a debrief afterwards. X reiterated that Psychosynthesis Trust relies on the judgement of the delivery team, who it ensures are fit for the role by requiring that they are experienced and qualified and have agreed to work in accordance with the BACP Ethical Framework. It does not set down any criteria for when therapists should intervene nor does it give guidance on types of intervention. The Complainant gave evidence confirming this, saying that Psychosynthesis Trust did not appear to have safeguards for therapists to fall back on and describing the delivery team as ‘flying by the seat of their pants’.
The Panel asked what arrangements are in place at Psychosynthesis Trust to monitor the performance of its freelance staff. X gave evidence that participant feedback is monitored and the freelancers feedback to each other. But there is no formal appraisal or assessment process.
Having heard this evidence, the Panel decided that Psychosynthesis Trust did not have adequate safeguards in place to ensure that open therapy sessions were ended if the client became openly distressed. It did not consider that a high level of safeguarding would be necessary on all courses. However, given the level (introductory), duration (four days) and wide range of potential participants (potentially with no experience of therapy at all), the minimum ‘adequate’ safeguard level for the course is higher. It found that Psychosynthesis Trust relied heavily on the qualifications and experience of its freelance therapists. But that given the way in which they were selected and recruited, and the absence of a formal quality assurance framework for their performance, the Panel did not consider the level of safeguarding adequate. It suggested that the minimum ‘adequate’ safeguard would be a requirement to pause and ask an individual if they wish to continue when they are visibly distressed, which was not in place. This allegation was, therefore, upheld.
2. The Complainant gave oral testimony, confirming when asked, that this allegation relates to the evening session and not before. She accepted that during the day she ‘was vague, not assertive, woolly’ when dealing with the pressure she felt to participate in the evening session. But she stated that when she sat down with the therapist she ‘clearly said [she] was feeling bullied; then I was very clear’. The Complainant then described how within 5 minutes of the start she was ‘crying in a foetal position’.
The Panel noted the evidence provided by the therapist in the subject session (Ms A) provided by Psychosynthesis Trust and the conflicts between that and the Complainant’s evidence. It was disappointed not to have the opportunity to explore Ms A’s evidence and assess her credibility as a witness. The Panel did note, however, that the Complainant’s evidence throughout the complaint has been plausible and consistent, and continued to be in oral testimony during the hearing.
After due deliberation, the Panel decided that it was likely from the beginning of the session when she said she felt bullied, that the Complainant had been unambiguous about not wanting to participate in the evening session This, it determined, was followed by very clear reinforcement from the Complainant’s body language. The Panel was satisfied that despite these clear signs the therapist did not stop the session and explicitly ask the Complainant if she was happy to continue. From X’s evidence the Panel determined that there was no instruction, guidance or protocol in place from Psychosynthesis Trust to ensure that the therapist did so. Accordingly, this allegation was upheld.
3. X gave evidence that Psychosynthesis Trust first became aware there had been a problem in the Complainant’s evening session when she wrote with her complaint. X personally conducted the investigation, speaking to the trainers involved (including Ms A) and reading the Complainant’s points of grievance. X described wanting to identify if there had been bullying or bad practice. X said X concluded that the Complainant had ‘projected’ onto Psychosynthesis Trust and the delivery team ‘turning people into things they are not’. X accepted the Complainant’s evidence, but considered this to have been an ‘internal experience’ that was ‘not born out by external occurrences.’ When questioned, X confirmed that X had not spoken to any of the participants who were present during the Complainant’s evening session, nor had X contacted the Complainant to clarify her grievance. X said it ‘didn’t seem appropriate at the time’.
The Panel asked what complaints procedures exist at Psychosynthesis Trust. X explained there was a formal process set out in the student manual with several stages progressing from informal to formal, which X was familiar with, but X said there was no formal investigation protocol and that this is not communicated to participants on the course. So, X did not consider that the process applied in this case and did not follow it. X said X was guided by the Complainant’s letter and X’s own judgement. Based on this X spoke to the course’s two lead trainers and Ms A. X accepted that ‘in hindsight [X’s] letter could have contained more, but at the time [X] wanted to provide a clear response’. X also confirmed that Psychosynthesis Trust has taken no action as a result of X’s investigation as X did not conclude there had been any failings.
In relation to X’s appropriateness as investigator, X explained that X ‘felt X had a good enough understanding to conduct it’. X accepted someone else could have investigated the complaint, and that the [ . . . ] was in post and could have taken on the task.
The Panel determined that Psychosynthesis Trust had a complaints process, but it was not communicated to the course’s students and not followed by X, despite X being aware of it. It decided that X was insufficiently independent of the course being complained about to deal with the complaint: X was responsible for the course and X contracted the freelance therapists who ran the course. The Panel also noted that there was an alternative, independent member of the Executive Team available. Finally, the Panel established that the investigation had made no effort to clarify the issues with the Complainant or to identify potentially independent witnesses.
As such, the Panel found that Psychosynthesis Trust did not conduct an adequate investigation of the complaint or take steps to ensure future participants in the course did not experience distress due to the open therapy sessions. In failing to do so, the Panel determined that Psychosynthesis Trust failed to ensure candour by promptly informing its client of anything important that had gone wrong in their work together, and investigate and take action to avoid whatever had gone wrong being repeated. Accordingly, this allegation was upheld.
In light of the above findings, the Panel found that paragraphs 21, 26 and 47(e) of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (2016) had been breached together with the ethical principles of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy, Beneficence and Non-Maleficence and showed a lack of the personal moral qualities of Care, Empathy, Respect and Wisdom.
Accordingly, the Panel was unanimous in its decision that the findings amounted to professional malpractice, in that the services for which Psychosynthesis Trust was responsible fell below the standards that would reasonably be expected of a practitioner exercising reasonable skill and care.
The Psychosynthesis Trust did not put forward any mitigation.
One of the aims of the Professional Conduct Procedure is to protect members of the public. The Panel, in considering what sanction may be appropriate in the circumstances of this case, has taken into account the interests of public protection.
Having done this, the Panel imposed the following sanction:
Psychosynthesis Trust is to:
1. Within 14 days of the deadline for appeal of this decision give an undertaking to immediately cease the practice of using course participants as subjects in the evening open sessions during the Essentials of Psychosynthesis course.
2. Within 3 months of the deadline for appeal of this decision:
a. Ensure that the Psychosynthesis Trust Complaints Policy/Procedure is communicated clearly to all participants on all Psychosynthesis Trust training, including but not limited to the Essentials of Psychosynthesis course.
b. Conduct a formal review of the process for assessing applications for the Essentials of Psychosynthesis course to better identify appropriate triggers for contacting applicants for further information to assess their suitability for an experiential course of this nature, to include but not limited to the inclusion of applicants currently undergoing therapy.
These written submissions must be sent to the Registrar, by the given deadline, and will be independently considered by a Sanction Panel.
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