The complaint against the above individual member/registrant 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 Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy.
The focus of the complaint, as summarised by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, is that therapy commenced between the Complainant and Ms Harris, to address issues of [ . . . ], at the end of September Year 1 and continued until March Year 3.
The Complainant states she asked for sessions to be arranged in [ . . . ] but Ms Harris was unable to find a location and therefore offered to hold the sessions at her home (Ms Harris' home) in [ . . . ]. The Complainant states that Ms Harris offered to pick her up from her workplace or the bus stop, by car, to take her to her home for the sessions, and drive her back to the bus stop after the sessions. The Complainant readily accepted. On occasions, the Complainant states that Ms Harris drove the Complainant back to her home address.
The Complainant alleges that the therapy sessions were not time bound and lasted as long as there was time to take her back to the bus stop. The first session for example she states lasted approximately an hour and a half.
At the second session, the Complainant alleges that she was asked if she wished the door to be closed or open during the therapy sessions. The Complainant states that the door should have been closed to set the boundaries and maintain confidentiality.
The Complainant alleges that during the car journeys discussions took place and that the therapy and car journey discussions blurred into one. The Complainant alleges that she quickly became attached to Ms Harris as a mum, or a friend or family member, as no boundaries in the relationship had been set.
The Complainant alleges that she would squeeze Ms Harris's hand on getting out of the car and she alleges that this was reciprocated. At the last session before going to her family home, for Christmas Year 1, Ms Harris allegedly drove the Complainant home. The Complainant alleges that she asked for a hug and was given one by Ms Harris. The squeezing of hands allegedly continued until the last session on 8 March Year 3.
It is alleged that Ms Harris planted an idea for the Complainant to study Transactional Analysis (TA). The Complainant went for an interview at [ . . . ] College on [ . . . ] and secured a place at the college.
The Complainant complains that Ms Harris would share information about other therapists with her during therapeutic session, and would disclose information regarding her other clients during the car journeys, citing for example matters relating to a teenage client of hers and another client who had been sexually abused.
The Complainant alleges that Ms Harris shared personal information about herself and as a result, the Complainant states she felt that she was a friend of Ms Harris. However, she became jealous, sad and lonely when Ms Harris allegedly shared information about her family and grandchildren with her.
Allegedly, when the Complainant wanted a break from therapy, Ms Harris stated that a new contract would need to be entered into which confused the Complainant.
In July Year 2, the Complainant decided to step away from therapy as she felt the lines between the client/therapist relationship had been blurred. The Complainant states she remained emotionally fragile over the summer Year 2.
A requirement of the Complainant's course was that she should be in personal therapy and in September Year 2 the Complainant contacted Ms Harris to restart therapy in November Year 2. Ms Harris was due to complete her [ . . . ] exam in November Year 2 but this was allegedly delayed and the Complainant felt annoyed and let down by this.
The therapy restarted first week in November Year 2 at Ms Harris's newly built cabin with no electricity but candles. The Complainant states she saw a man sitting in Ms Harris's living room and felt ignored and fragile as he was not introduced to her.
In a later therapy session when discussing how she felt when she took a break from therapy, the Complainant states that Ms Harris said she felt dumped by the Complainant. The Complainant states that she felt rejected and no longer trusted Ms Harris. The Complainant states she experienced emotional pain as a result.
During the therapeutic relationship and during breaks in the counselling, Ms Harris engaged in out of session contact with the Complainant.
In accepting this complaint, the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel was concerned with the following areas, and in particular these are:
1. It is alleged that Ms Harris failed to provide a good quality of care and competently delivered services which met the complainant's needs in that Ms Harris, by bringing the issues detailed below into the sessions, she failed to use the complainant's therapeutic space for the issues she wished to discuss, and blurred the professional boundaries for the complainant:
(a) On a number of occasions talked about her other clients;
(b) On a number of occasions disclosed information about her own personal life and family which caused the complainant to feel hurt and jealous;
(c) told the complainant about her colleague who had passed away;
(d) Engaged in out of session email contact with the complainant which was of a personal nature.
(e) Engaged in hugging and squeezing of hands at the end of the car journeys; and
(f) Exchanged Christmas cards.
2. It is alleged that Ms Harris failed to clarify and agree the rights and responsibilities between herself and the complainant in that she did not set time boundaries for sessions, such that sessions, on occasions, could last for more than an hour or less than an hour to accommodate the lifts Ms Harris would give the complainant to and from sessions.
3. It is alleged that Ms Harris failed to clarify and agree the rights and responsibilities between herself and the complainant in that she did not clarify the venue for sessions, in that on occasion therapy would continue during the car journey.
4. It is alleged that Ms Harris did not consider the implications of entering into a dual relationship with the complaint, in that the complainant and Ms Harris had a friendship during the therapeutic relationship which had a detrimental impact on the complainant.
5. It is alleged that Ms Harris failed to respect her clients' privacy and dignity in that during one session, which took place in Ms Harris' purpose built therapy room, the complainant could clearly see a man waiting in Ms Harris' living room.
6. It is alleged that Ms Harris failed to be clear to the complainant about her commitment to be available to her and honour that commitment, in that Ms Harris was aware that the complainant had been given permission to continue therapy with her as required by the complainant's college course on the basis she was due to take a particular exam; but Ms Harris failed to notify the complainant that the date for her exam date had changed by some months, which placed the complainant in a tenuous position with regard to her college course requirements.
7. Ms Harris' alleged behaviour, as experienced by the complainant and as identified in the numbered paragraphs referred to above, suggests a contravention in particular of paragraphs 1, 3, 4, 11 and 19 and the Ethical Principles of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy and Beneficence of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling & Psychotherapy (2013), and showed a lack of the personal moral qualities of Sincerity, Respect, and Wisdom to which counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire.
The complainant notified BACP that she would not be attending the hearing, and the matter was referred to the Registrar under paragraph 4.9 of the Professional Conduct Procedure, which states:
‘Where either a Member or Complainant is unable or unwilling to attend the hearing, the matter will be referred for consideration by the Registrar under paragraph 4.9 of the Professional Conduct Procedure where the following options are available:
a) proceed with the Hearing in the absence of one or both of the parties; or
b) adjourn the Hearing to a date not less than 28 days in advance; or
c) terminate the proceedings; or
d) refer the matter for consideration under Article 12.6 of the Memorandum & Articles of Association.'
The Registrar made the decision to proceed with the hearing in the absence of the complainant, and this decision was notified to the parties on 25 May 2017.
1. Having considered the written evidence of both parties, and the verbal evidence given by the Member, the Panel firstly made the following findings of fact:
(a) When questioned, Ms Harris agreed that she talked of other clients, but stated that she did this for illustrative purposes, or with a therapeutic intent and context. The complainant's evidence is that this blurred the boundaries for her.
(b) When questioned, Ms Harris acknowledged that she disclosed information about her personal life and family, both in the therapy room and in the car journeys but that this was in response to questions and because she believed that it had therapeutic value. The complainant's evidence was that some of these disclosures made her feel hurt and jealous.
(c) Ms Harris accepted that she talked to the complainant about a colleague's son who had died. She stated that because she was close to her colleague it had affected her and she felt that she should tell the complainant about this at the start of a session, so that the complainant would understand that she might not be fully present during the session.
(d) Ms Harris accepted that she engaged in e-mail contact that was personal. The Panel noted emails which related to her dog and also the [ . . . ], which the complainant was taking.
(e) Ms Harris accepted that she engaged in hugging and squeezing of the hands, although in oral evidence she stated that she never initiated this and it would have felt "awkward" not to reciprocate.
(f) Ms Harris accepted that she had exchanged Christmas cards on one occasion but explained that she had given all her clients cards that particular year.
The Panel considered allegation 1 in two parts: (i), Ms Harris failed to use the therapeutic space for the complainant's issues and (ii), Ms Harris blurred the boundaries for the complainant.
1(i). In considering the above findings of fact, in particular (a) to (c) the Panel accepted Ms Harris's explanation that the disclosures about other clients were intended to be therapeutic, and further that she disclosed information about her personal life in response to questions from the complainant and because she believed it to be of therapeutic value given the issues the Complainant had about her own family. The Panel also accepted the reason why Ms Harris disclosed the information at (c) above, in that she wanted the complainant to understand why she might not appear fully present in a particular session. The Panel found, on balance, that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate the allegation that Ms Harris had failed to use the therapeutic space for the complainant's issues and therefore did not uphold this part of the allegation.
1(ii). However, in considering all of the findings of fact (a) to (f) above, the Panel did consider that taken as a whole they did have the effect of blurring the boundaries for the complainant. Ms Harris, in her oral evidence, admitted that in retrospect the complainant was confused and that the Complainant had experienced the relationship as one of friendship. The Panel found that in blurring the boundaries for the complainant, Ms Harris failed to provide a good quality of care and competently delivered services which met the complainant's needs This part of the allegation is therefore upheld.
Allegation 1 is therefore upheld in part.
2. Ms Harris accepted, in both her written and oral evidence that she had not clarified with the complainant that sessions would last an hour. Ms Harris also stated that on occasion she had given responsibility of time keeping of sessions to the complainant and that sessions were mostly for an hour. The Panel carefully questioned Ms Harris about the timings involved in picking up the complainant; dropping her off; the length of the drive; and what time the sessions started and ended. In responding to the Panel, Ms Harris conceded that on some occasions the sessions were more than an hour and accepted that the sessions could therefore be of varying times. Ms Harris also admitted that she did not explicitly contract with the complainant with regard to the length of sessions. The Panel found, on balance, that Ms Harris had failed to clarify and agree the rights and responsibilities regarding time boundaries of the sessions with the complainant. The Panel therefore upheld this allegation.
3. The Panel questioned Ms Harris with regard to the complainant's assertion that therapy would continue in the car journeys. Ms Harris stated that she did not continue therapy discussions in the car, but engaged in light conversation that had no emotive connection. When asked by the Panel if she had made this distinction clear to the complainant, Ms Harris accepted that she did not explain it explicitly and therefore it may have not been clear in the complainant's mind. The Panel found that Ms Harris had failed to clarify and agree the rights and responsibilities between herself and the complainant with regard to the venue for therapy sessions. This allegation is therefore upheld.
4. In her oral evidence, Ms Harris denied that a dual relationship existed. Ms Harris further stated that it had never been her intention to give the impression that the relationship went beyond that of a therapeutic one. However, the complainant believed that there was a friendship between them. Having considered all the evidence before it, including the written evidence from the complainant, the Panel concluded, on balance, that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that there was a friendship between the parties. It therefore followed that a dual relationship did not exist and the responsibility of considering the implications of entering into a dual relationship, did not arise. The Panel did not uphold this allegation.
5. The Panel considered the allegation that Ms Harris failed to respect the complainant's privacy and dignity. The complainant's evidence was of seeing a man sitting in Ms Harris's sitting room, as she left a therapy session, which took place in Ms Harris' purpose built therapy room, outside of the main house. However, there was no evidence presented that the man saw the complainant. The Panel questioned Ms Harris, who explained that the man, was her lodger. In the absence of evidence that the lodger saw the complainant, the Panel found that this allegation was not proved.
6. The Panel questioned Ms Harris very closely regarding the date of her exam and how and when it had been changed. Ms Harris offered an explanation, however, conceded that she had made a commitment that she subsequently could not honour. The Panel considered Ms Harris was ambivalent of the fact that the date of the exam mattered to the complainant. The Panel noted that Ms Harris, having committed herself to providing therapy based on passing an exam on a certain date, postponed the exam and failed to inform the complainant of the same, which resulted in the complainant being placed in an uncertain and tenuous position with regards to her course conditions. The Panel therefore upheld this allegation.
7. Ms Harris' alleged behaviour, as experienced by the complainant and as identified in the numbered paragraphs referred to above, suggests a contravention in particular of paragraphs 1, 3 and 19 and the Ethical Principles of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy and Beneficence of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling & Psychotherapy (2013), and showed a lack of the personal moral qualities of Sincerity, Respect, and Wisdom to which counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire
The Panel did not find that there had been a contravention of paragraphs 4 or 11 of the Ethical Framework.
Accordingly, the Panel was unanimous in its decision that the findings amounted to professional malpractice, in that the services for which Ms Harris was responsible fell below the standards that would be reasonably expected of a practitioner exercising reasonable care and skill.
The Panel listened carefully to the mitigation that had been presented by Ms Harris and her representative. The Panel noted that Ms Harris had retrospectively reflected on the complaint made and had also engaged in extensive supervision. The Panel accepted that Ms Harris did not intend to cause harm to the complainant. The Panel also took account of the references that had been provided on her behalf.
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.
The Panel therefore imposed the following sanction:
(i)Within one calendar month from the date of imposition of this sanction, which will run from the expiration of the appeal deadline, Ms Harris is required to submit a written submission, which evidences her immediate reflection on, learning from and understanding of, the allegations upheld by the Professional Conduct Panel in this complaint.
(ii) In no less than three months and no more than six months, from the date of notification of the approval of the first sanction., Ms Harris is required to submit a written submission outlining her understanding of her own (i.e. the therapist's) place in the therapeutic engagement. This should include reflections on the therapist/client power differential relating to this complaint and the issues arising from the findings which were upheld. The submission should also include her increased understanding of managing the imbalance of power in therapy, listening to clients; clear contracting; appropriate and inappropriate use of self-disclosure and the importance of checking that there is a shared understanding of the therapeutic process. The submission should be written in lay language and avoid reference to theoretical language as far as possible.
These written submissions must be sent to the Registrar of BACP Register by the given deadline and will be independently considered by a Sanction Panel.
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