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Panel won't bar accused molester

School psychologist can keep his state license. The alleged victim's mother is 'outraged.'

June 28, 2007|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

A former educational psychologist for Los Angeles schools who allegedly molested a boy hundreds of times two decades ago will not lose his state license and will be able to continue working with children.

In a terse letter last month, the California Board of Behavioral Sciences informed the alleged victim's mother that it had concluded a nearly yearlong investigation, and no action would be taken against Peter J. Ruthenbeck because the statute of limitations had run out.

The alleged victim's mother, Paula Morgan Johnson, a therapist herself, said the decision has left her "devastated" and "outraged."

She had filed a complaint with the board that included a handwritten note that she said she received from Ruthenbeck, who provides psychological therapy to deaf and hard-of-hearing children. He was fired by Los Angeles Unified School District in September when Morgan Johnson provided the district with the letter. Ruthenbeck has held contracts with a number of other schools.

In the unsigned letter, which came in an envelope bearing Ruthenbeck's name and return address in Huntington Beach, the writer acknowledged hurting Scott Johnson.

"What was wrong with me back then is still a part of me today, but it is buried very deeply," the writer said. "I have learned to not allow myself to indulge in conscious fantasies, but I still sometimes have dreams that I remember when I wake up. I don't know that there is a way to control this."

Scott Johnson, now a carpenter in Boulder, Colo., said he met Ruthenbeck in 1978, when the older man was assigned to him in a Big Brother program. Johnson was 8, Ruthenbeck was 19. Johnson said Ruthenbeck began molesting him several months later and continued until he was 15.

When Johnson broke his silence last year, Ruthenbeck was banned from the Big Brother program. Johnson and his mother asked Boulder police to investigate, but authorities said the statute of limitations had passed.

Paul Riches, the executive officer of the state behavioral sciences board, said no action could be taken against Ruthenbeck because of a 10-year statute of limitations that applies to sexual abuse. A "thorough investigation" found no "clear and convincing" evidence of professional misconduct over the past decade, Riches said.

Ruthenbeck could not be reached for comment, and his attorney, B. Robert Farzad, did not return repeated phone calls. His office declined to say where Ruthenbeck is working.

Until September, Ruthenbeck worked an average of three days a week for L.A. Unified. The sessions were conducted one-on-one or in small groups.

Ruthenbeck, who is married and has two children, served in recent years as president of the California Assn. of Licensed Educational Psychologists. He had worked for L.A. Unified for at least 12 years. Ruthenbeck's 2005-06 contract allowed him to bill the district up to $212,000 per year depending on his client load.

The administrator of his contract, Eileen Skone-Rees, said Ruthenbeck didn't protest when she canceled his contract.

The two never directly discussed the alleged abuse of Johnson. "I didn't ask, and he didn't offer," she said this week.

She also said that she had never received a complaint about Ruthenbeck until she received a phone call from Morgan Johnson.

Morgan Johnson said she received the letter after confronting Ruthenbeck over the phone.

In the letter, the writer said, "I am so, so very sorry. Whenever I think about that period in my life, I wonder what was wrong with me.

"You asked me what I was feeling. Since your call I have felt overwhelming shame, guilt and sadness."

Morgan Johnson said she did not think it was possible for Ruthenbeck to reform. "I am a trauma therapist," she said, "and someone who abuses a child over a long period of time, hundreds and hundreds of times, is not committing an adolescent indiscretion. This is pedophilia. Pedophiles don't stop."

She said that despite the statute of limitations, the state board should have taken action.

"Based upon the letter that Pete sent me, I thought the board had enough evidence to warrant a finding that he had sexually abused my son and to take disciplinary action against him. As a mother, I am outraged and devastated by their decision. The board has failed in its responsibility to protect our children," she said.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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