How a client-therapist relationship left one Nova Scotian feeling more hurt than healed

Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

The case of a Nova Scotian whose counsellor lost her right to practise after the provincial College of Social Workers concluded she crossed professional boundaries sheds light on the vulnerable position people can be in when their therapist acts inappropriately and the limited avenues available to them to seek recourse.

Access Consciousness is a practice whose proponents say it helps clear energies from the body through physical touch. Taron, a Nova Scotia resident who uses the pronoun 'they,' said a social worker who used the practice crossed the boundaries between client and counsellor. The Nova Scotia College of Social Workers agreed and revoked the counsellor's registration.(CBC)

Taron expected the counsellor would offer help to recover from complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Instead, more than four years after the first therapy session in a Halifax clinic, the Nova Scotian said their life was spiralling — there were sleeplessness, thoughts of suicide and a struggle with the toll it was all taking on Taron's marriage.

Taron, whose real name and identifying details are protected by a publication ban, felt the distress was the result of the therapy and an intimate relationship with the former counsellor, Eileen Carey.

"I've experienced a lot of harm in my life. I have never experienced a kind of harm that is this insidious, is this deeply impactful," said the former client, who uses the pronoun "they."

"I was wholly immersed in a kind of shame-based reality of feeling like, 'What did I do wrong? I can't even do therapy right.'"

Hugs, frequent and personal texting, gifts and even socializing together were only part of the interactions with Carey. The social worker also introduced Taron to a practice called Access Consciousness whose proponents promote the elimination of boundaries and claim physical touch can clear people's minds by releasing energies.

Following two complaints in 2018 about Carey's conduct toward Taron, the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers (NSCSW) determined late last year that there had been professional misconduct and permanently revoked Carey's registration. (To practise in the province, social workers must be registered with the college, which regulates the profession.)

Carey declined an interview request through her lawyer.

Social contact, touching increased

It's rare for social workers in Canada to lose their ability to practise as a result of inappropriate relationships with clients. But in Nova Scotia, the regulator overseeing the profession has been dealing with a growing number of complaints, including those related to improper boundaries.

Taron's case also sheds light on the vulnerable position people are in when their counsellor acts inappropriately toward them as well as the limited avenues available to them to seek recourse.

The college, which received complaints about Taron's counsellor in 2018, says its members are always in a position of power when working with clients and the onus is on them to maintain professional boundaries. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Taron said the wording in the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers's final decision in the case didn't align with their experience and more attention should be paid to supporting people who come forward with concerns about social workers.

Taron, who is a member of the queer community, started seeing Carey after receiving a recommendation from another health-care professional. The sessions started out normally, they said. But over time, the social worker shared personal information about her life, the two would hug and they began to text between sessions.

Midway through the second year, Taron disclosed being attracted to their counsellor during a session. They now believe they were experiencing transference — when someone projects or redirects feelings onto their therapist — but said at the time it was confusing to develop those feelings.

They've since learned that social workers are trained to take specific steps to mitigate risks and set boundaries. One option is referring clients to another provider.

But that didn't happen, and the sessions continued. After the disclosure, Taron recalled that their contact outside of therapy increased, and so did the hugging.

Humans and humanoids

The distance between therapist and client further dissolved when Carey introduced Taron to Access Consciousness, a practice founded by an American entrepreneur in the 1990s whose proponents claim to offer people the tools to change their lives

It distinguishes between humans — those who judge others — and "humanoids," loosely defined as people who have the power to create, change things and recognize they're different from humans.

One 2015 manual defines elements of a good partner and relationship as a "person who is good in bed," who provides money and allows "you to do whatever you want to do when you want to do it and you allow them to do whatever they want to do when they want to do it."

Access Consciousness course materials illustrate specific points on the head said to store thoughts, emotions and memories. Proponents of the practice say that touching the points, or 'running bars' as it's known, can clear clutter from the brain. One Access Consciousness website lists more than 150 facilitators who offer classes in eight provinces. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Proponents of Access Consciousness claim that 32 points on the head store thoughts, emotions and memories and, according to manuals about the practice, that touching the points, or "running bars," can clear clutter from the brain.

People can also pay for training that promises to show them how to clear negative energies. An Access Consciousness website lists more than 150 facilitators who offer classes in eight provinces.

Taron remembers Carey introducing Access Consciousness as "a tool or strategy" she'd been exploring personally. They were intrigued.

Somatic treatment at therapist's home

After Taron spent thousands of dollars on online courses and in-person workshops on the other side of the country, the social worker began inviting Taron to her home so they could do "energy trades."

They would each take turns lying on a massage table in Carey's basement and received "bars," light touches on their heads and over the clothes on other parts of the body. They referred to each other as "energy buddies."

"It brought us incredibly close together," Taron told CBC in a recent interview. "There's no right or wrong. Judgment is a limitation."

The sessions continued even after the formal counselling sessions ended in 2016. It wasn't until late 2017, nearly four years after the therapeutic relationship started, that Taron started thinking there was a power imbalance in their relationship and subsequently ended contact with Carey.

Now, looking back, they struggle to differentiate memories of therapy, Access Consciousness and the interactions they had socially. Taron says they were left feeling harmed by the fact the person they had confided in and trusted to guide them had not maintained professional boundaries and in the end was neither a friend nor therapist.

"The relationship felt very unbalanced to me," Taron said. "It felt like a relationship in my life where I was giving a lot."

Attempts to switch counsellor failed

As Taron started to confront what they now see as the harm caused by their former therapist, they approached several counsellors who declined to take them on because of potential conflicts of interest.

"If I had one more mental health professional tell me that they couldn't help me, I wasn't sure if I was going to survive that," they said.

Eventually, they disclosed details to a health professional who did report concerns to the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers.

As part of Taron's subsequent complaint to the college, they submitted thousands of text messages exchanged with Carey that encompassed the two years she was providing one-on-one counselling and the 18 months that followed.

Registration revoked permanently

Last December, following the two complaints lodged in the spring of 2018, the NSCSW stripped Carey of her registration.

Her actions "amounted to professional misconduct, conduct unbecoming to the profession, incompetence and a breach of the standards of practice and code of ethics," according to the disciplinary decision.

It noted Carey, who had been a social worker in the province for 28 years, suggested that her registration be revoked permanently and did not contest seven allegations against her.

The allegations included that she engaged in Access Consciousness and "in a dual/multiple role relationship by developing a friendship with Client A and failing to appropriately address Client A's feelings toward her."

Carey agreed to pay the college $15,000 to cover part of the costs of the investigation.

Case is 1 of 2 revoked registrations in N.S.

The Carey case was one of two in two months in Nova Scotia that saw social workers have their registrations revoked, the most severe penalty the provincial regulator can impose.

In the second instance, Ryanne Rhodenizer admitted to professional misconduct, which included having sexual intercourse with someone to whom she'd recently provided counselling. The decision found Rhodenizer had asked her former client "not to discuss their encounters with anyone."

She was fined $7,500 and will be able to re-apply for registration after one year.

Rhodenizer declined to comment through her lawyer.

"In the [Rhodenizer] case, there were lots of mitigating factors in terms of how the social worker worked with the college, the accountability that they took. And so that warranted a response that was revocation of a year with an opportunity to reapply," said Alec Stratford, executive director of the NSCSW.

CBC contacted regulators across the country. There were only six other cases in Atlantic Canada in the past five years where social workers were disciplined for failing to maintain appropriate boundaries out of a total of 354 complaints filed. Two of the cases resulted in sanctions. A third resulted in a five-year suspension and $29,000 fine.

Carey's case appears to be the first time a social work regulator in Canada has weighed in on Access Consciousness.

'It can be a little off-putting for complainants to not be able to have the final say or the influence of what's going to happen,' said Alec Stratford, executive director of the NSCSW, of the frustration that Taron and others who lodge complaints feel about the investigative process.(Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Complaints to college increasing

As in other provinces, the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers oversees ensuring members have the necessary education, experience and competencies. They also must affirm to follow standards of practice, a code of ethics and take an ethics course every five years.

Social workers often care for people in vulnerable situations — they work in hospitals, with community organizations and within the context of child protection. Some, like Carey, have additional training that allows them to provide mental health guidance in one-on-one sessions, similar to a psychologist or certified counsellor.

They are always in a position of power when dealing with clients, said Stratford, and the onus is always on them to ensure roles are clear and appropriate.

Communicating by text, for instance, can sometimes be a part of therapy, and touching may be warranted in situations where a social worker is comforting a client, he said. But friendships and romantic relationships are never permitted.

Part of the social worker's responsibility, he said, is to be aware of transference, or countertransference, when the therapist begins to project onto their client, and handle the situation appropriately.

"We know that particularly when providing services to folks with complex trauma, that that is a real risk of something that can happen," he said. "And so social workers absolutely have to have the right training and the right certification to be conscious of that impact and that effect."

The Nova Scotia College received 44 complaints in 2020, up from an average of 30 a year between 2016 and 2020 and just 14 a year between 1993 and 2016. Stratford said as a result of increased complaints, the college is looking at additional ways to help people who allege harm, including a policy that specifically addresses sexual misconduct.

Most colleges across Canada do not offer complainants any specific services, although people who make sexual abuse or sexual misconduct allegations against their social worker in Alberta have access to counselling through provincial legislation.

In 2019, following an independent review of how the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia handles sexual complaints, that college created a public support adviser position. The Ontario College of Social Workers has a similar role.

Stratford said staff already have training to work with a trauma-informed lens and doesn't think there are enough complaints to warrant a full-time position, although the college is considering contracting someone if the need arises.

'Gutted' by final decision

In the Carey case, Taron said they were updated as the investigation into their complaint against Carey progressed and was eventually referred to a disciplinary committee.

But their role in the process amounted to being a witness, as opposed to a party who weighs in on outcomes. They were not part of a hearing held in November and only learned of the outcome afterward.

Taron said they were "gutted" and confused to learn there was no mention of their initial allegation of sexualized harm in the final decision given that their complaint centred on the disclosure of their romantic feelings for Carey and their ongoing interactions, including texting, hugging and touching.

They also received no explanation about why it wasn't referenced.

The ruling characterized their involvement with their former therapist as "friendship," a word Taron said doesn't reflect their experience.

Taron has wondered if this case would have been treated the same way if a woman lodged the same complaint against a male therapist.

Halifax lawyer Andrea MacNevin acted as an advocate for Taron, whose name and identity are protected by a publication ban. (CBC)

Stratford said the outcome would not have changed.

"The findings point to professional boundary crossing. That's what was substantiated through the investigative process by both the complaints and the discipline committee," he said.

"The complaints committee themselves are made up of majority social workers with public members who have training in the impacts of the patriarchy of trauma and are conscious of where society is, particularly on the issue of sexual misconduct."

College protects the public

He stressed revocation is the most serious penalty possible and that the college imposed restrictions on Carey's work in 2018. Pending the final decision, she could only work under direct supervision.

"That is an indicator that the college from the very get-go recognized the significant risk that was posed and took immediate actions to protect the public," he said.

But he acknowledged that the process isn't always an easy one for people coming forward.

"It can be a little off-putting for complainants to not be able to have the final say or the influence of what's going to happen in those decisions. But again, it's important to note that the college's role is the public interest in that matter, and they're representing the broader public's interest."

Calls for improvements

Lawyer Andrea MacNevin, who acted as an advocate for Taron, questions whether the administrative process at the college should be based on a criminal-justice style model, where the complainant is a witness and not part of the ultimate decision.

"Or is there space to build a process where there is more room for [an individual to have] agency and options for that person within the process? Is there room for a little more restorative work? Especially in these types of helping professions?"

Stratford said when possible, the college does draw on restorative justice principles when crafting reprimands, suggesting further education and resolving issues informally.

Over the past two years, since cutting ties with Carey, Taron has been working on dealing with the impacts of the interactions with Carey and the complaints process.

Going forward, they hope the social worker college considers hiring someone from the LGBTQ and BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and people of colour — communities to help complainants navigate the process.

They wanted to share their experiences in hopes other people might be more comfortable speaking up should their social worker behave inappropriately.

"When the experience that comes from [counselling] is one of being further traumatized by way of choices, behaviours and inactions that that therapist has done, that experience is a hard one to qualify. It's not one that is talked about frequently."

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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