The complaint against the above individual 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 Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy.
The focus of the complaint, as summarised by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, is that the Complainant saw Ms Dennis for counselling between October 2010 and February 2011, and then off and on between May 2013 and 20 September 2014. The Complainant alleged that during the course of counselling, Ms Dennis disclosed material about her other clients and her own life, which was inappropriate.
At the start of a session on Saturday 20 September 2014, Ms Dennis enquired as to why the Complainant was there, allegedly not the way she would usually start a session. The Complainant allegedly knew something was not right almost immediately and noticed that Ms Dennis was acting unusually.
Ms Dennis allegedly said, ‘As you know there are two of us in the room', which did not make sense to the Complainant. Ms Dennis allegedly kept saying, ‘It's not right [ . . . ]' and putting her head in her hands. The Complainant felt very uncomfortable and bewildered. She offered to leave and Ms Dennis mentioned that whilst she had cancelled one client that morning, she had not cancelled her appointment with the Complainant. Ms Dennis allegedly asked the Complainant if she cared about Ms Dennis. Not knowing what else to say, the Complainant replied in the affirmative.
Ms Dennis allegedly then asked the Complainant to take the role of the counsellor and to ask Ms Dennis questions, which was not something that Ms Dennis should have done. Ms Dennis asked the Complainant to ask her how she was feeling. The Complainant did so, and also said that she felt Ms Dennis needed a hug. When Ms Dennis asked where her hug was, the Complainant got up to give her a hug whilst feeling that this was wrong. Ms Dennis allegedly leant in to the Complainant, sobbing, and saying that she was not good enough. The Complainant responded that she was good enough.
Ms Dennis allegedly continued to tell the Complainant repeatedly that she loved her, allegedly kissing the Complainant on both cheeks whilst holding her head in her hands so that the Complainant could not move.
The Complainant then wished to leave, but Ms Dennis sat and allegedly told the Complainant to sit saying that she was now all right. Ms Dennis allegedly wished the Complainant to talk to her but the Complainant was very unsettled and refused to do so, despite Ms Dennis allegedly slapping the Complainant's legs hard enough to hurt. Ms Dennis then allegedly brought the session to a close, again holding the Complainant's head, kissing her on both cheeks, saying that she loved her and that she was a lovely lady.
The Complainant alleged that Ms Dennis' behaviour was very weird. Ms Dennis sent a short email of apology the next day, followed by a text a week later saying that she did not want to cancel contact and that she would explain as best she could. The Complainant responded that she would not return but she would like to be assured that Ms Dennis had sought help.
The Complainant stated that she felt upset and uneasy about what had happened. She alleged that she was let down by Ms Dennis's alleged lack of professionalism.
The Panel, in accepting this complaint, was concerned with the allegations made within the complaint suggesting contravention of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy. These concerns are as follows:
1. Ms Dennis allegedly failed to provide a good quality of care that met the Complainant's needs, in that during a counselling session on 20 September 2014, (a) asked the Complainant where her hug was, and despite feeling that it was not allowed, the Complainant did so (b) repeatedly told the Complainant that she ‘loved her' making her feel ill at ease and (c) slapped the Complainant on her legs, hard enough to hurt her, when she refused to talk to Ms Dennis. It is alleged that Ms Dennis's actions did not constitute competently delivered services.
2. Ms Dennis allegedly failed to provide a good quality of care in that during the course of counselling she made self-disclosures and disclosed information about other clients.
3. Ms Dennis allegedly allowed a dual relationship to occur with the Complainant when she asked the Complainant to take the role of counsellor and ask her questions. She also asked the Complainant to ask her (Ms Dennis) how she was feeling. It is alleged that putting her client in such a position had a detrimental impact on her.
4. Ms Dennis allegedly failed to honour the trust of her client in that she slapped the Complainant on her legs when she refused to speak. This action was allegedly discourteous and was not respectful to the Complainant's dignity.
5. Ms Dennis allegedly abused the Complainant's trust in order to gain an emotional advantage in that she asked the Complainant for a hug, repeatedly stated that she ‘loved her', and kissed her on both cheeks whilst holding the Complainant's head in her hands so that she could not move. At the end of the session, it is alleged that Ms Dennis kissed her again on her cheeks and repeated that she ‘loved her'. These actions were allegedly detrimental to the Complainant.
6. Ms Dennis allegedly failed to monitor her own fitness to practice at a level which enabled her to provide an effective service, in that on 20 September 2014, (a) despite informing the Complainant that she had cancelled another client's appointment that day, she did not cancel the Complainant's appointment and started the session by asking the Complainant why she was there and (b) during the session Ms Dennis also made several comments about her own issues, was visibly upset and tearful. It is alleged that Ms Dennis had failed to consider her fitness to practice and withdraw from practice for all clients, including the Complainant.
7. It is alleged that whilst Ms Dennis responded promptly to the complaint subsequently made and offered an apology to the Complainant, she did not appropriately address the concerns expressed by the Complainant about what had happened in the session.
8. Ms Dennis allegedly failed to take responsibility to ensure that her work did not become detrimental to her health and well-being and failed to undertake her work safely and did not seek professional support in relation to the issues which manifested during the session with the Complainant.
9. Ms Dennis' 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, 4, 11, 17, 40, 41, and 64 of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling & Psychotherapy (2013), and the Ethical Principles of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-Maleficence and Self-Respect and further suggests a lack of the personal moral qualities of Empathy, Sincerity, Integrity, Resilience, Respect, Competence, Humility, Courage and Wisdom to which counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire.
Ms Dennis notified BACP that she would not be attending this, or any other hearing that might be scheduled. The matter was therefore referred under paragraph 4.9 of the Professional Conduct Procedure, which states:
Where a Complainant or Member Complained Against fails or refuses to attend a Professional Conduct Hearing, the Registrar has the power to decide to either:
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 options were carefully considered, and in light of the circumstances, a decision was made to proceed with the hearing on 12 August 2015 in the absence of Ms Dennis. Although, the Panel would have welcomed the opportunity to question Ms Dennis in relation to the complaint and the allegations, no adverse inference was drawn from her absence. The Panel carefully took into account reasonable points that could be made on behalf of Ms Dennis and aspects of the case that were in her favour.
On the balance of probabilities, the Panel made the following findings:
1. The Complainant provided a consistent and credible account of the counselling session that took place on 20 September 2014. The Panel noted that the Complainant made a written record of the events that occurred soon after the session, in contemplation of making a complaint to the BACP. The only response to the substance of the allegations from Ms Dennis is contained in the additional information she provided, which states: ‘The mentioned counselling session took place over a 20 minute period, of which the first 15 minutes were appropriate. The last 5 minutes were not. At that point an apology was made, and the session was ended, with of course no charge.' The Panel found the evidence of the Complainant to be reliable and in the absence of any specific challenge from Ms Dennis, accepted that the Complainant's recollection of events was an accurate account of what took place.
The Complainant stated in her oral evidence, that physical touching was not part of the usual interaction she had with Ms Dennis at any time during their counselling sessions. The Panel accepted this evidence and also accepted that Ms Dennis' request for a hug was exceptional, unusual and inappropriate, given the nature of their client/counsellor relationship and previous interaction.
The Complainant in her written and oral evidence referred to Ms Dennis repeatedly telling her that she ‘loved her', which made her feel ill at ease. Understandably, the Complainant was unable to offer any explanation for Ms Dennis' choice of words and in the absence of an explanation from Ms Dennis herself, it remains unexplained. Nonetheless, the Panel was satisfied that the use of these words in the context of a counselling session was unusual and inappropriate.
The Complainant in her written and oral evidence described how Ms Dennis slapped her on the legs 3 times, whilst they were sitting opposite each other, apparently in an attempt to persuade the Complainant to talk to her. The Complainant informed the Panel that she felt very unsettled due to the unusual behaviour of Ms Dennis and it was her unwillingness to talk that resulted in the slap to the legs. The Complainant stated that the slaps were hard enough to hurt. The Panel was satisfied that this behaviour was wholly inappropriate.
The Panel noted that the Complainant felt very uncomfortable, unsettled, awkward and ill at ease throughout the 20-25 minutes that she was in the presence of Ms Dennis on 20 September 2014. The Panel accepted that this was due to the unusual and inappropriate behaviour displayed by Ms Dennis. The Panel therefore found that Ms Dennis' behaviour individually and collectively amounts to a failure to provide good quality of care and competent delivery of services to the Complainant that met her needs.
For these reasons this allegation is upheld in its entirety.
2. The Complainant in her oral evidence stated that Ms Dennis made various self-disclosures in the counselling session that took place on 20 September 2014 and in previous sessions. These disclosures concerned Ms Dennis' husband, her son and her mother. Ms Dennis also referred to being the ‘black sheep of the family'. The Panel was satisfied that these disclosures had been made by Ms Dennis and that they were inappropriate, as they had the potential to undermine the client/counsellor relationship.
The Complainant also stated in her oral evidence that on at least one occasion, Ms Dennis revealed the forename and age of a particular client during a counselling session. Ms Dennis informed the Complainant that that particular client had low esteem and went on to describe the work she had done with her. The Complainant stated in evidence that on other occasions Ms Dennis revealed the forenames of other clients and the nature of what they had discussed with her during their counselling sessions. The Complainant stated that she was fearful that her name and details might be disclosed to other clients of Ms Dennis. The Panel was satisfied that these disclosures had been made by Ms Dennis and that they were inappropriate, as they had the potential to undermine the client/counsellor relationship.
The Panel found that these inappropriate disclosures individually and collectively amounted to a failure to provide a good quality of care.
For these reasons this allegation is upheld in its entirety.
3. The Panel accepted the Complainant's oral evidence that Ms Dennis was ‘acting differently' from the outset of the session and seemed unusually unsettled and agitated. In her written complaint the Complainant stated: ‘I know [sic] that as soon as I sat down I knew something wasn't right...'. Shortly before making the ‘role play' request, where the Complainant was asked to play the role of the counsellor, the Complainant stated in her complaint that Ms Dennis had tears in her eyes and asked the Complainant several times if she cared about her.
Although, according to the Complainant's oral evidence, Ms Dennis had on previous occasions invited her to participate in role play, (which had been declined), the session on 20 September 2014 was the first time Ms Dennis had suggested they swap client/counsellor roles. This was a one-off incident and it was unclear to the Panel whether, or to what extent, Ms Dennis was in role as a counsellor, due to her own emotional distress, when she made this particular ‘role play' request. Although, the Panel accepted that the role reversal request was made, in view of the circumstances it was not satisfied that a dual relationship arose as a consequence. In light of this finding the Panel did not go on to consider the issue of detriment.
For these reasons this allegation is not upheld.
4. As mentioned in Finding 1 above, the Panel accepted that Ms Dennis slapped the Complainant's legs 3 times and that this was wholly inappropriate.
The Panel was also satisfied that the Complainant had the right to be treated with courtesy, dignity and respect. Ms Dennis' actions amounted to a significant breach of trust and this was not the behaviour a member of the public or a fellow professional would expect from a registered member. Therefore, the Panel found that Ms Dennis failed to honour the trust of the Complainant, which was discourteous and was not respectful of her dignity.
For these reasons this allegation is upheld in its entirety.
5. As mentioned in Finding 1 above, the Panel accepted the Complainant's account of what took place during the session on 20 September 2014. As well as the request for a hug and expression of love, this included kissing the Complainant on both cheeks, whilst holding her head during the session and again at the end of the session.
Trust is fundamental to the client/counsellor relationship. The Panel found that this trust was abused by Ms Dennis when she sought to gain an emotional advantage by placing her own needs above those of the Complainant, as demonstrated by the unusual and inappropriate request for a hug, the expression of love and the kisses to both cheeks.
The Panel noted that the Complainant felt ill at ease throughout the session, and at times during the session was close to tears herself. Following the session she described being ‘taken aback' by what had happened. She also explained to the Panel that she subsequently felt increased anxiety, depression, loss of confidence and stated that her self-esteem plummeted. Therefore, the Panel was satisfied that there an abuse of trust by Ms Dennis in order to gain an emotional advantage and that this was to the detriment of Ms Dennis.
For these reasons this allegation is upheld in its entirety.
6. The Panel accepted the Complainant's oral evidence that during the session that took place on 20 September 2014, Ms Dennis informed her that she had cancelled another client's appointment that day, said that she could not cancel the Complainant's appointment and started the session by asking why the Complainant was there. The Complainant acknowledged in her oral evidence that Ms Dennis did not offer any explanation for cancelling that appointment or any explanation for why she could not cancel the Complainant's appointment. Understandably, the Complainant was also unable to assist the Panel with regards to why Ms Dennis asked her why she was there, at the outset of the session.
In the absence of any explanation from Ms Dennis herself, or any information about the time of that cancelled appointment, the Panel concluded that there was insufficient evidence for it to be satisfied that the decision to cancel an appointment that day, yet keep the Complainants appointment, was due to Ms Dennis' failure to monitor her own fitness to practice. The question posed by Ms Dennis (‘why are you here?') remains unexplained. Although, the Panel accepted the Complainant's evidence that this was unusual, the Panel concluded that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that, in and of itself, this question demonstrates that Ms Dennis failed to monitor her own fitness to practice.
Accordingly, allegation 6(a) is not upheld.
The Panel accepted the Complainant's evidence that Ms Dennis made several comments about her own issues during the counselling session on 20 September 2014, and was visibly upset and tearful. As set out in Finding 2 above, the Panel found the self-disclosures by Ms Dennis to be inappropriate.
The Panel noted that Ms Dennis appeared unable to control her emotions and that the session was terminated early. At some point prior to her appointment with the Complainant, Ms Dennis ought to have been aware that due to her emotional state she was not fit to see clients. The Panel concluded that if Ms Dennis had sufficient self-awareness and insight, the session with the Complainant would not have taken place and Ms Dennis would also have withdrawn from practise for all clients. The Panel was therefore satisfied that Ms Dennis failed to monitor and maintain her fitness to practise at a level which enabled her to provide an effective service in this regard.
Accordingly, allegation 6(b) is upheld.
For these reasons this allegation is partially upheld.
7. The Panel recognised that Ms Dennis apologised to the Complainant the day after the counselling session, in an email dated 21 September 2014, but noted that the email provided no explanation for what had occurred. Ms Dennis sent the Complainant a text on 27 September 2014, indicating that she would explain, but there was no explanation in that text. The last communication from Ms Dennis to the Complainant was an email, dated 28 September 2014, in response to the Complainant's email dated 27 September 2014, in which she set out her concerns. In her email reply, Ms Dennis simply thanked the Complainant for responding and indicated a willingness to help the Complainant in the future. The Panel noted that other than the comment referred to in Finding 1 above, there was also no explanation from Ms Dennis in her communication with the BACP.
The Panel was satisfied that Ms Dennis was given the opportunity to address the concerns that had been raised and failed to do so. Although Ms Dennis responded promptly, in the absence of any explanation with regard to her conduct and behaviour, her response was inadequate, as it did not appropriately address the concerns expressed by the Complainant.
For these reasons this allegation is upheld.
8. The Panel accepted the Complainant's oral evidence that there was a change in Ms Dennis during the last few months of counselling, that she talked about her supervisor ‘a fair bit' and that she spoke about her own family in every session during the last few months to the extent that the Complainant ‘felt she [Ms Dennis] had issues that she needed counselling for herself almost'. However, the Panel noted that there was no mention, during these sessions, of any professional support Ms Dennis may or may not have been receiving, other than supervision.
In the absence of any oral evidence from Ms Dennis or any detailed written evidence from her, there was insufficient evidence before the Panel with regard to whether she failed to take responsibility to ensure her work did not become detrimental to her health and well-being. There was also insufficient evidence for the Panel to conclude that she failed to undertake her work safely and did not seek professional support in relation to the issues which manifested during the session with the Complainant.
For these reasons this allegation is not upheld.
9. In light of the above findings, the Panel was satisfied that paragraphs 1, 11, 17, 40, 41 of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2013 edition) and the ethical principles of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-Maleficence had been breached. It also found that Ms Dennis demonstrated a lack of the personal moral qualities of Empathy, Sincerity, Integrity, Resilience, Respect, Competence, Humility and Wisdom to which all practitioners are strongly urged to aspire.
The Panel was satisfied that paragraphs 4 and 64 of the Ethical Framework had not been breached, nor the ethical principle of Self Respect and did not find a lack of the personal moral quality of Courage.
Accordingly, the Panel was unanimous in its decision that these findings amounted to serious professional malpractice in that the service for which Ms Dennis was responsible, fell below the standards that would reasonably be expected of a practitioner exercising reasonable care and skill. The Panel found that in this case Ms Dennis, displayed incompetence and provided an inadequate professional service
Ms Dennis offered no mitigation in her written responses and did not attend to offer mitigation in person.
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 decided that the appropriate sanction is withdrawal of membership. The Panel concluded that slapping the Complainant on the legs during the counselling session, was so serious that withdrawal is necessary to protect the public and to declare and uphold appropriate standards of conduct and behaviour. The Panel was satisfied that withdrawal is a proportionate response in light of the nature and gravity of Ms Dennis' serious malpractice.
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