When someone goes to a therapist or psychologist, they are often in a vulnerable state. That is why psychologist, therapists and other registered mental health professionals are expected to avoid engaging in sexual relationships with their patients. In fact, it is not just unethical, it’s also illegal for therapists to have sex with patients
Why Can’t Therapists Have Sex With Patients?
In order to get licensed, therapists and psychologists must agree to uphold a number of ethical codes as well as legal statutes defined in the Business and Professions Code. These standards make it a crime for a therapist to break confidentiality with a patient and they also prohibit unprofessional conduct such as sexual relations between patients and their counselors.
The code specifically outlaws “an act of sexual intercourse, sodomy, oral copulation, or sexual contact with a patient or client,” stating that this is a form of sexual exploitation, a criminal offense. Sexual conduct is further defined as “sexual intercourse or the touching of an intimate part of the patient for the purpose of sexual arousal, gratification, or abuse.” If the client claims the act was not voluntary, additional charges such as rape, forced oral copulation or unlawful sodomy could be filed as well.
Penalties for Psychologists Who Sleep with Patients
Obviously violations of the Business and Professions code can result in probation, suspension, revocation or suspension of a professional license. But this act isn’t just a civil matter and can also result in criminal charges. In most cases, the crime will be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine of $1000.
If it has been found that the mental health professional had sexual relationships with two or more victims or if the therapist has a prior conviction and has at least two sexual encounters with the same patient though, then the crime may be a felony or misdemeanor. As a misdemeanor, it’s punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of $1,000. As a felony, the penalty increases to up to 3 years in jail and you can face a fine of up to $10,000.
Whatever the specifics of the case, the licensing Board will suspend or revoke the therapist’s license and the criminal court will bar the defendant from practicing during the period of probation. For non-consensual criminal acts, the therapist will also be required to register as a sex offender.
If you have been accused of other crimes, such as forced sex charges, you may face more serious penalties, many of which will require registration on the sex offender list. As you can tell, these serious charges require the immediate advice and support of a sex crime defense attorney.
Fighting the Charges
It’s worth noting that the Business and Professions Code specifically states that patient consent is not a defense to this crime. That’s because it is assumed that someone providing mental health services to someone in need could too easily manipulate their vulnerable patient into consenting to something they would not otherwise agree to. Similarly, while it is legal to have a relationship with a former patient, it is illegal to terminate a patient/counselor relationship solely to begin such a relationship so saying that someone is a former patient may not necessarily help your case.
Like anyone else facing criminal charges, the best thing a therapist can do when they have been accused of having sex with a patient is to call a lawyer. That’s because your best defense will depend on the specifics of the case and you don’t want to flatly deny the charges when it turns out that police have already seized emails, texts, love notes or even gotten a warrant to record a phone call or session with the patient.
Claiming that you were providing sexual therapy services is also not a good defense. That’s because while there are people known as “sexual surrogates” who work in the legal gray area between prostitution and therapy, these people are working in their own specialty which is not bound by the Business and Professions code that guides the conduct of therapists and psychologists. If professional psychologist truly believes his patient may need such a service, he will make a referral to a sexual surrogate and not attempt to do the work himself.
If you are a therapist, counselor, psychologist or other mental health professional who has been accused of having sex with a patient, please call Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024.
Image by Norbert Kundrak