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The growing popularity of therapy for everything from marriage troubles to drinking problems has the mental health care community paranoid about lawsuits. Legal and health care experts say that therapists today face a greater risk of being sued than ever before, particularly given the 55% divorce rate and the breakdown of the family. The fear of litigation is especially high among therapists who get tangled in messy custody disputes and get blamed for the loss of child custody. “They are in the most dangerous environment in America-and that’s getting in between parents and their children,” said Eric C. Marine, vice president of claims for the American Professional Agency, which provides malpractice insurance to mental health care professionals. Marine, who is writing a white paper titled, “The Cleavers Have Left the Building,” believes that the breakdown of the family has pushed more people into therapy and, consequently, has triggered more suits against therapists in recent years. He should know. He sees the therapists’ malpractice claims, and often gets phone calls from them upset about a lawsuit or a complaint. “When I was young, nobody ever said anything about seeing a shrink. And even if you were seeing one, you didn’t tell anyone. Today, I think that’s why there are more lawsuits because therapy is now mainstream,” Marine said. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 2.2 million individuals are seeking marriage and family counseling, as are 863,000 couples and 549,000 families. The number of family and marriage therapists has soared over the last two decades, from 7,000 in 1979 to more than 50,000 in 2005. Several national trade organizations representing social workers, psychologists and family and marriage counselors did not have statistics on the number of lawsuits or administrative complaints filed annually against therapists. But a number of health and legal experts said that suits and complaints against therapists with state licensing boards have increased significantly in recent years, particularly in the area of family law. “The number of complaints has skyrocketed,” said attorney O. Brandt Caudill, who is currently defending therapists in about 30 civil suits. “If you look at just the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, they’re averaging between 600 [and] 700 complaints a year . . . and there are certainly a lot of lawsuits that have been coming down the pike.” Caudill, of Callahan, McCune & Willis in Tustin, Calif., who has been defending mental health professionals for 20 years, noted that a new breed of lawsuits has cropped up against therapists, who have long been sued for sexual misconduct or failure to prevent suicide. Now they’re being sued for forging business relationships or friendships with patients after the business goes bad or the friendship sours. They’re also being sued for not helping people get better, he said. “Now it’s kind of more of a ‘failure to thrive’ argument,” Caudill said. “It’s just basically, ‘I didn’t get better.’” In several suits in Illinois, for instance, claims were made that the patient did not improve under therapy, or that the marriage failed because of it. In one case, a man is suing his marriage counselor for allegedly having an affair with his wife and causing his divorce. In another case, four patients are suing their former therapist, claiming that her therapy caused a failed marriage, emotional instability and an attempted suicide. Whetstine v. Delnor-Community Hospital, No. 05LK162 (Kane Co., Ill., Cir. Ct.). The patients allege that the therapist, Letitia Libman, a licensed psychologist, practiced witchcraft on them after luring them in with normal therapy. Among the allegations are that Libman shared private client information, advised patients to practice witchcraft to get over their problems, recommended that a patient get a divorce and held s�ances with patients. Plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Stavins of Robbins, Salomon and Patt in Chicago, has filed a malpractice suit against Libman that also names as a defendant Delnor-Community Hospital in Kane County, Ill., where she worked as a psychologist. The hospital’s lawyer, Ben Patterson of Chicago’s Hall, Prangle & Schoonveld, was unavailable for comment. Libman’s attorney, Brook Carey of Cassiday Schade in Naperville, Ill., declined to comment. Defensive practice The fear of litigation has therapists practicing more defensively, noted Linda High, staff attorney for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. High said that a big concern for therapists is getting subpoenaed to testify in custody disputes-a practice they detest. “They’re dragged kicking and screaming into the legal system,” High said of therapists. “I get an average of two phone calls a day where a therapist has been subpoenaed, and the question is, ‘What do I do?’” High said another key concern for therapists is being sued for breach of confidentiality or the appearance of favoritism for one side in a custody dispute. “I think the threat [of litigation] is definitely higher,” High said. Family law specialist Lee Rosen of The Rosen Law Firm in Raleigh, N.C., which deals exclusively with divorce and custody disputes, said that in recent years, therapists have been much more cautious about accepting work from law firms. “It used to be they were thrilled to get a client, and now they’re much more selective and careful about who they’ll get involved with,” Rosen said. As defensive measures, Rosen said, therapists are recording telephone calls, taking extensive notes and using elaborate engagement agreements that set forth their responsibilities to the clients. “I do think that there is a high level of concern in that community and legitimately so,” Rosen said. But the concern may be overblown, said Peter Bell, who teaches torts and health law at Syracuse University College of Law in New York. “What we’ve just gone through with med-mal generally has been a dramatically exaggerated litany of crisis stories,” said Bell, who cautions mental health workers not to be consumed by fear of suits. “I want them to have malpractice insurance, but I don’t want them to be freaking out about it so it makes them do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do,” Bell said.

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