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Licenses of Mental Health Therapists Targeted in Major Malpractice Case

April 21, 1986|LOIS TIMNICK | Times Staff Writer

In what has become the longest, costliest and most complex psychotherapy malpractice case in California history, the state is seeking to revoke the licenses of 13 psychologists and other mental health practitioners after investigating complaints of fraud, sexual misconduct and abuse from more than 100 former patients at the now-defunct Center for Feeling Therapy in Hollywood.

The center--a once-trendy "therapeutic community" that in the 1970s attracted a host of young professionals seeking a fuller life--closed down five years ago and civil lawsuits filed by ex-patients have already been settled for more than $6 million, but the therapists have continued to practice elsewhere.

In a hearing that began March 3 and is expected to last another 12 weeks, five of the center's leaders and key therapists are now defending their actions before Robert A. Neher, a veteran administrative law judge.

As former patients confront their therapists in a cramped hearing room in a downtown Los Angeles state office building, one central question permeates the proceedings: Are the complaints merely the distortions and fantasies of troubled patients, as the defense suggests, or was the center a cult run by greedy, manipulative therapists who "brainwashed" patients into subservience, as the prosecution contends?

Deputy Atty. Gen. William L. Carter, who is prosecuting the cases, calls the case a tale of "brutality and fraud" made possible by brainwashing.

Defense attorney Thomas Larry Watts and the key defendants declined to be interviewed. However, in his opening arguments Watts portrayed his clients as innovative therapists who developed unconventional techniques to treat "lost souls": young adults caught "between the radical peace movement of the '60s and the Yuppie generation of the late '70s and the '80s," and consequently "uncertain of their place in society."

Good Reasons for Techniques

He predicted that ex-patients' testimony "as to certain alleged events will range from outright lies, we believe, to such extreme exaggeration as to be totally unreliable. . . ."

Center psychologists had good reasons for their techniques, he said. For example, a psychologist might ask a female patient who was acting seductively in a therapy session to take off her blouse "as a technique to cause her to see her own behavior for what it is."

It has been three years since the state, through four professional licensing agencies within the Department of Consumer Affairs, moved to revoke their licenses, but hearings did not begin until late last summer.

Prosecutor Carter said the long delays are the result of a combination of factors: the Board of Medical Quality Assurance's initial skepticism about the bizarre allegations, stalling tactics by the defense, the difficulties of tracing witnesses years after the alleged violations, the scheduling problem posed by a series of hearings estimated to require a total of 61 weeks and the sheer volume of the cases--which involve 150 witnesses, 200 pages of allegations, 800 pages of affidavits and nearly 4,000 pages of documents.

The psychologists are accused of having "engaged in and/or aided and abetted the unlicensed practice of psychology, committed acts of dishonesty, fraud or deceit, committed corrupt acts, engaged in sexual misconduct and other physical abuse of patients, and committed numerous other proscribed acts constituting grossly negligent conduct. . . ."

The accusation states that their techniques smacked of "cult brainwashing" and that "in order to break down and control center members (they) utilized racial, religious and ethnic slurs, physical and verbal humiliation, physical, especially sexual, abuse, threats of insanity and violence and enforced states of physical and mental exhaustion."

The Center for Feeling Therapy, which opened its doors in 1971, grew out of the human potential movement of the '60s, when many in search of psychological fitness flocked to primal therapy or gestalt workshops. The center's founders, some of whom trained at Los Angeles' Primal Institute (which later disowned them), were hailed by their patients as "new Freuds" and trumpeted by an active public relations staff.

By the time the center closed in 1980 it had about 350 members--mostly college-educated men and women in their 20s and 30s who lived communally in a compound of Hollywood houses and operated a host of small businesses, such as car repair, construction and plant sales. It also established clinics in Boston, San Francisco, Montreal, Munich and Hawaii.

"Feeling therapy" combined the patients' re-experiencing the past, expressing present feelings, dream analysis and behavioral conditioning in a rigidly structured setting and at a cost of thousands of dollars. The goal was to recognize and respond to one's true feelings by working through "primal pain" caused by parental denial and discipline.

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