Disturbed patient, disturbing therapy by St. Cloud psychologist

State board disciplines a St. Cloud psychologist who seemed to believe her client's delusions more than her client did.

Star Tribune, Minneapolis/October 31, 2009

She was a deeply disturbed woman who claimed her parents began torturing her as an infant. Both of her brothers reportedly committed suicide. She had multiple personalities. She drew pictures of a house in Canada where she thought she underwent government mind-control experiments. And she feared a satanic cult was trying to control her with lasers.

But whenever the troubled woman expressed doubts about her lurid delusions, her psychologist, Suzanne James, told her she was "in denial" and encouraged her to concoct even crazier theories, state investigators concluded. Without a shred of proof, James believed it all. The St. Cloud psychologist even provided dark sunglasses to shield her client from the cult's lasers.

In a report released last week, the Minnesota Board of Psychology found James violated numerous laws and regulations governing doctor-patient conduct. Instead of helping her client get better, the board said, James made her sicker, fostering a state of unhealthy dependence that made it virtually impossible for the client to function independently. James even came up with a daily schedule for the woman's alter egos.

But James didn't lose her license. In fact, she can continue treating her existing patients, even those suffering from multiple personality disorder.

Through her attorney, James declined to comment on the charges, which she admitted under terms of the consent order.

R. Christopher Barden, a lawyer and psychologist who served on the Minnesota Board of Psychology in the 1990s, said licensing boards struggle with inherent conflicts of interest because they're supervising their peers. In a previous interview with another newspaper, Barden described such agencies as "captured boards" that act more like therapists than regulators aimed at protecting the public.

"The problem of how to deal with harmful quack psychotherapies goes far beyond what the small staff of licensing boards can manage," Barden said this week.

In 1999, the Minnesota board banned Renee Fredrickson from treating patients in cases involving potential cult abuse. Barden represented a female patient who sued Fredrickson for allegedly manipulating her into recalling false memories of ritual cult abuse, torture, dismemberment and murder. The case was settled later and Fredrickson remains licensed.

Since 1984, the Minnesota board revoked the licenses of 27 psychologists, though three practitioners were later reinstated. The board investigated 119 complaints last year, imposing discipline in 13 cases.

"It takes a lot for someone to actually lose their license," said Pat Labrocca, a regulations analyst with the board.

Labrocca said fraud and sexual misconduct are the kind of violations that typically trigger license revocation. In cases involving unethical or improper treatment, the board looks at several factors, including whether a psychologist can be rehabilitated, she said.

Growing paranoia

James' client, who was not identified in the state report, came to James in 2002, a referral from a colleague who felt James was well suited to handle a patient suffering from multiple personalities. James had been specializing in such cases for more than 10 years.

The first major revelation apparently came in 2004, when the woman -- who was considering suicide -- began telling stories about how she had been abused as a child. The tales became increasingly far-fetched, as James helped her discover more "recovered memories."

The woman described satanic rituals in which her three babies were killed while her mother helped, and of how her parents sold her two brothers for mind-control experiments. She claimed cult members were still pursuing her.

In a 2005 letter to a state agency, James explained that her client "appears to have been a survivor of the U.S. Government mind control experiments," which she said "fits with historical accounts of such programs."

State investigators said James appeared to believe in the delusions more than her client did, and that she often "encouraged and embellished" her client's "memories." She told investigators she was convinced by the "consistency" of the woman's stories, but she admitted she never attempted to corroborate any of the woman's claims by talking to other family members.

In January 2005, her client's psychiatrist told James she could no longer treat the woman, saying she couldn't go along with James' treatment methods. The psychiatrist said she would share her concerns with the client.

James responded by telling the woman that it was better that she stop seeing the psychiatrist since "she neither understood nor approved of what we were doing," the state report says.

Putting her in danger

Convinced a cult was going to abduct her client on her 50th birthday, James decided to take action. First, she introduced the woman to another client, a woman whose family was trying to get her committed to a mental institution. The woman also was facing gun charges.

Both women claimed to be cult survivors.

In January 2006, James brought the two women to a library, where they met with a detective from the county sheriff's office. James told the detective she was afraid the cult was going to kidnap her client and force her to marry its leader. James said she feared her own life was in danger.

The detective followed up on at least one of James' claims, but the information did not check out, according to the state report. It's not clear what happened later. Local law enforcement agencies said they have no record of the incident.

James told investigators she knew it was "outside the box" to bring her two clients to a hotel in March 2006, where the women camped out to avoid a feared abduction. But she said it was the best way to combat her client's "compulsion" to drive to Canada and join the cult that had been pursuing her for decades.

"This is going to sound loony tunes,'' James told state investigators. "She had been set up from conception to become the bride of the High One at age 50 and at that point she would supervise the cult rituals."

The board cited the incident as evidence of James' "impaired objectivity," and said she should have brought the woman to a hospital if she feared for her safety.

In its report, the board concluded James is "unable to practice with reasonable skill and safety," and placed limitations on her work for at least two years.

She must undergo counseling and training on professional boundaries. She can continue seeing three patients with multiple personality disorder, but can't take on any new patients with that diagnosis. She has to meet with her supervising psychologist for at least two hours each month.

James' attorney, Thomas Pearson, said she cooperated with the investigation. He declined to comment further.

Gary Schoener, executive director of the Walk-In Counseling Center and an expert in cases of professional misconduct, said James clearly stepped over the line. But he said psychologists sometimes become overly absorbed in their clients' lives.

"Some therapists are suggestible," he said. "The clients are very convincing and they get worried about the client and they lose their boundaries."

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this article.

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