Psychologist who dated prisoner acted inappropriately: Health and Disability Commissioner

A prison psychologist who provided counselling to a vulnerable inmate acted inappropriately by dating him when they had both left the prison.

The psychologist breached the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights when she hooked up with the man despite already having quit her job at Corrections and the man being on parole at this time, according to the HDC decision released today.

HDC Deputy Commissioner Vanessa Caldwell said the latest case should serve as a reminder to the profession that psychologists still had an ethical duty regardless of whether they still held the role.

The clinical psychologist first came in contact with the man, who was serving a life sentence, in 2016 as part of a “high intensity” rehabilitation programme.

She was one of two psychologists providing the majority of his treatment.

As part of this, the man in his 30s spoke to her about his childhood and relationship history including that the longest relationship he had before prison was for four months.

During a private session in July 2017, he declared his feelings for her and how he had been finding it difficult to manage his thoughts and feelings.

The psychologist explained how he was developing positive transference, particularly with regards to clients sharing personal information with therapists and misinterpreting the connection they feel with the therapist as romantic feelings.

The man became embarrassed and asked to transfer to another unit, however the psychologist told him the importance of completing the maintenance phase of the programme.

The psychologist then told her supervisor about his transference and a plan was developed to ensure the inmate was well supported and that he managed the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship well. She told her manager she felt comfortable continuing the treatment.

When interviewed by the HDC, the psychologist denied crossing any professional boundaries while providing treatment to him which continued until October 2017.

In February 2018, the prisoner moved to a self-care unit to work on reintegration skills for release and the psychologist claims to have only visited him a few times.

There are no records of the times she visited him and there are also gaps in the overall reporting and documenting – something the Department of Corrections has been told to address.

In August 2018, the psychologist resigned from her role at the Department of Corrections telling the HDC it was because she was no longer happy in her role as a psychologist and she needed a change in direction. She also voluntarily removed herself from the New Zealand Psychologists’ Board register.

When the prisoner was released in April 2019 the pair reconnected on a “chance outing”, the man told the HDC. They started dating shortly after.

The relationship was brought to the attention of the authorities a few months later when the man mentioned it to the rehabilitation unit staff. Corrections was notified and a complaint was launched with the NZPB who then notified the HDC.

Caldwell said the report highlighted the importance of maintaining appropriate professional boundaries after therapeutic relationships ended.

She said the psychologist held an ethical duty to the man to maintain these boundaries irrespective of whether or not she continued to practise as a clinical psychologist at the time.

The man was still in a vulnerable situation, having recently left prison and continuing to receive ongoing rehabilitation to re-integrate back into the community, she said.

Caldwell issued a number of recommendations for both the woman and the Department of Corrections.

If the woman did decide to return to the profession, it was recommended the NZPB require her to undertake further training on ethical and boundary issues and mentoring.

Corrections was also urged to introduce specific guidance outlining individual staff members’ responsibility regarding when and how to escalate issues of transference and how they should be managed. A copy of the HDC report was also to be given to all psychological services staff across Corrections’ facilities for continuing education.

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