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The State

Psychic Didn't See Counseling Sting

The Marin County woman faces state civil charges of practicing unlicensed social work.

March 01, 2004|Kate Coleman | Special to The Times

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Psychic advisor Georgina Ritchie never had a scintilla of suspicion that the client sitting across from her on the Sausalito houseboat that doubles as her Marin County office was an undercover agent secretly recording their session. The tale of family dysfunction he narrated included a story of his girlfriend's daughter posing naked on a website and slapping her grandmother.

The whole tale was bogus.

Ritchie, who is outwardly indistinguishable from Marin County's other upscale matrons, was caught in a sting operation run by the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which had received a complaint about her. She was criminally charged with providing unlicensed family counseling and social work and failing to report child and elder abuse. Although those charges were dropped last month, Ritchie still faces civil charges of violating state business practice laws. The new charges could cost Ritchie $50,000 or more in fines.

Ritchie maintains that she never billed herself as a licensed counselor, therapist, social worker or anything other than what she is: a psychic, spiritual healer. She says she has run a "spiritual-based counseling" business for 23 years, using such New Age arcana as past-lives therapy, channeling techniques, crystals and precepts of Buddhism.

As an unlicensed spiritual advisor, she argues, she is under no legal obligation to report suspected abuse. But she acknowledges the real reason she made no report was one of racial delicacy: The undercover agent "is a person of color.... I hesitated to sic the police on people of color until I knew more about it, which is why I suggested further counseling," she explained.

Patrick Hallinan, Ritchie's attorney, accused the Marin County district attorney's office of a "witch hunt" against the area's spiritual practitioners.

But Robert Nichols, the Marin County prosecutor handling the Ritchie case, denied any such crusade. In a phone interview, he repeatedly asked: "Have you seen her website?"

The website and Ritchie's brochures promote her specialty of "clearing the chakras, the auric fields, energy grids, belief structures, experiences ... across all lifetimes." Nowhere do they state that Ritchie is a psychologist, licensed therapist or social worker.

The criminal trial was scheduled to begin in early February , but the district attorney's office decided to proceed instead with a civil case.

"We never considered prison to be an appropriate outcome for Ms. Ritchie," Nichols said. "We just want to make her stop engaging in the practices of false advertising and misrepresentation."

Although Ritchie expressed satisfaction that she would not be facing jail time, she finds the economic stakes in the civil case worrisome.

At the courthouse last month, Ritchie, 64, was surrounded by an admiring group of current and one-time clients, including Wendy Viggars.

Viggars said she had left a regular therapist she had been seeing because she believed Ritchie had a "more spiritual way of solving emotional problems." Past-life therapy clicked for her, she said, because of the familiar patterns she saw in her own life: "I believe one lifetime just can't be it.... It wasn't like I was anyone famous, like Cleopatra, in my past life; just the opposite, in fact."

Hallinan said the civil case includes "exactly the same issues." The prosecutor "wants to prohibit Georgina from doing all the things that she does."

Hallinan relishes defending a past-lives psychic therapist. "I never thought I'd be doing a case like this," he said. But he turns serious when discussing the constitutional issues of the case.

"This is a 1st Amendment case of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The state business statutes are overly broad and impossible to enforce," Hallinan said. But the rights of New Agers are not the only ones in jeopardy. "Any person giving counseling or advice on problems -- a priest or minister -- is in the same boat, even suicide-prevention phone volunteers," he said.

What Ritchie is doing, co-attorney Ken Wine argues, is a matter of faith, not licensing. He cited state appellate Justice J. Anthony Kline's decision last year to reject a lawsuit against a priest accused of giving bad advice on the grounds that allowing the suit would burden the court with setting standards for religious belief.

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