7 Tips for Therapist Abuse Victims Considering Legal Action

I want to offer some tips and suggestions for any victims of therapist abuse and exploitation who may be considering taking legal action. While I would encourage anyone who has been victimized by a therapist (or other professional) to consider taking legal action, I want to be clear that it is not an easy thing to go through. It may actually have been to my advantage that I was still quite dissociated at the time I made the decision to proceed, because it really didn’t occur to me what I was getting myself into. I had some strange, out-of-body certainty that I was in the right, Dr. T was in the wrong, and I would win, darn it. So there it was. As it turned out, my experience was relatively benign (all things considered) and my lawsuit resolved fairly quickly. Compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard, I consider myself quite fortunate.

Here, in no particular order, are my suggestions for those who are considering legal action. Please bear in mind that I am not a lawyer. These suggestions are based on my own experience and should not be considered legal advice.

1. Get a good attorney

A friend once told me that winning a lawsuit isn’t about who is right or who has the most evidence, it’s about who has the best lawyer. Whatever kind of action you’re considering, even if it’s a licensing complaint, find an attorney who specializes in therapist abuse and knows what he or she is doing. If you can, get a referral from a trustworthy source.

I highly recommend that you take someone with you when you go to meet with your attorney. When I’m stressed out, I don’t hear half of what someone’s saying to me. It’s a good idea to have another pair of ears along in case yours aren’t working as well as you’d like.

2. Create a timeline of events

Write down a chronological history of everything that happened between you and your therapist as accurately as you can remember it. Did you record events in your day planner? Make notes in your journal? Write down the story as completely as you can, while it’s still fresh. That way, you’ll have it ready for your attorney should he or she ask for it, and if you find that, like me, you tend to forget things when you’re under stress, having something written down will be a great help during this process.

3. Gather evidence

After I got slapped upside the head with my wake-up call, I wasn’t thinking about a lawsuit. As I said in my post Aftermath, mostly I was just scared. When I got home from my appointment with the woman who did this upside-the-head slapping, I did what I could to immediately sever my ties with Dr. T and get him “out of my house.” I gathered some of the things he had given me, as well as the 70 photographs that I had taken of him in July 2003 (because he just didn’t have any decent photos of himself and thought maybe I could help him out…), and promptly threw everything in the dumpster. About half an hour later, a word popped into my head—Evidence—shortly followed by another word—Shit. I got my stepstool, took it outside, got into the dumpster, and retrieved every single photograph, postcard and piece of paper that I could reach (at least without having to touch anything disgusting). It was probably the smartest thing I could have done. When I decided to proceed with a lawsuit, I had some great evidence to back up my side of the story.

My advice: Gather whatever evidence you can find and put it somewhere safe. Whether it’s photographs, a birthday card from your therapist, emails (make a backup copy!), your journals in which you went on and on about all the things that happened, gifts, phone messages on your answering machine—whatever it is, KEEP IT. Yes, you may have to spend hours at the copy shop reproducing your journals (I had a stack about a foot tall!), but you’re going to be glad you have it.

4. Don’t believe everything you hear

These days, it seems like everyone has had some kind of experience with the law—a nasty divorce, a medical malpractice suit, a dispute with a neighbor—and they’ve all developed their own very strong opinions about lawyers and the legal system, based on what they went through. Maybe they had a crappy lawyer and now they think all lawyers are jerks. Maybe they got rich off some huge settlement. Whatever happened, their experience is not your experience. Don’t let anyone tell you what to think or what to believe. Suspend their judgments and make your own.

Also, beware of believing anyone who tells you that taking legal action will help you get your power back. While winning or settling a lawsuit (at least for a satisfactory sum) can go a long way toward making you feel validated, the legal process itself can feel quite disempowering. Once you file a lawsuit, you have no control; the attorneys are in charge, and you just have to let them do their jobs. There’s very little for you to do, and unfortunately, you just have to deal with it. Which brings me to Tip #5—

5. Try to be patient

Frankly, I doubt that anything could ever move fast enough for a victim who’s anxiously awaiting some kind of justice or validation. The process can feel interminable.

This is what it feels like to be in the middle of a lawsuit:

What’s going on? Why isn’t anything happening?!
What is taking so long??

It’s kind of like that.

The litigation process does not move quickly. Basically, it’s as if your attorney and the defense attorneys are trading paperwork back and forth, and every single little step seems to come with a thirty-day deadline. Of course, the defense doesn’t want to wrap this up quickly, so while you’re responding immediately to your attorney’s requests, chomping at the bit for action, the defense is going to push everything until the last possible minute. It takes TIME. You may think your attorney is dragging his feet or that your case is not a priority, but it’s far more likely that there’s simply nothing for him to do. He’s waiting, just like you.

6. Get support

Surround yourself with people who love you, believe you, and can help take care of you. A lawsuit is a stressful process and you will need care, especially if you’re simultaneously dealing with the aftermath of abuse and exploitation.

You will especially want support after your deposition or any other legal proceedings. (A deposition is an out-of-court testimony that is taken as part of the discovery process. You, as the plaintiff, will be questioned by opposing counsel. This is about as much fun as having your teeth drilled.) After your deposition, you may be exhausted, weepy, angry, and wishing you had a dartboard with opposing counsel’s face on it. Having someone around who can bring you dinner, or at least offer you a shoulder and a cup of tea, is a really good idea.

7. Have no contact with the perpetrator

This is a general suggestion for anyone trying to recover from therapist abuse and exploitation, but particularly for those considering legal action. If you can avoid having any contact whatsoever with your therapist, I highly recommend it. I believe that if I had had continued contact or communication with Dr. T, it may have been impossible for me to take legal action and see it through. I think he could very easily have talked me out of it.

I suspect that ongoing contact is one reason why many victims have a hard time taking legal action. The perpetrator is going to keep on doing and saying whatever he needs in order to manipulate you, keep you under his control, and prevent you from acting against his wishes. So, if you can, get him out of your head and out of your life as much as possible.

If you’re struggling with your attachment to your therapist—maybe you believe you’re in love with him, that you’re somehow responsible for what happened, maybe you feel guilty about taking legal action or are afraid it will harm or upset him—try to understand that holding this person accountable for his actions can be an act of kindness and respect, for him as well as for you. You are teaching him a valuable lesson—that what he did was wrong and that you will not tolerate abuse. You are also helping others, by doing what you can to prevent him from perpetrating this type of abuse and exploitation on anyone else.

Remember: You have been the victim of a crime. Your therapist has BROKEN THE LAW and has seriously harmed you, and you have every right to take legal action.

* * *

These are just a few suggestions based on my own experience. For legal advice, talk to an attorney.

You can also visit my Legal page, where you will find articles by John Winer and Stanley Spero, attorneys who specialize in therapist abuse cases.

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  1. I saw some disgusting texts between my wife and her “therapist” who is helping her deal with separation issues and emotional abuse by her father. She was also sexuaually abused by her uncle. She denied having sex with him(therapist), but admitted she was “in love” with him. She agreed the texts were inappropriate and was terrified when I told her I would tell his wife. I then met with him(therapist) and he said it was erotic tranference. That he needed to let her show herself to him to fully understand and deal with her issues. I have several questions. I lover her deeply. We have been separated for 2 years. What should I do? Can I request a copy of al the texts to confirm if they did in fact have sex. I understand you need a court order to get copy of texts. Do I have grounds ot request them in light of a potentially illegal sexual abuse-as defined in the APA? Any answers will help. I am devastated. Hope someone sees this and gives me direction.


    • Hi,
      I’m so sorry to hear about what’s going on. First, please don’t blame or punish your wife for what’s happening. What this therapist is doing is exploitative and abusive, and he alone is responsible for upholding the boundaries of the relationship. Due to the nature of their relationship, your wife may have been unable to refuse him, say no, or give genuine consent to any of this.

      I don’t know what to tell you about the texts. Yes, they would be considered evidence in a criminal and/or civil case. If you were going to pursue legal action (criminal or civil) or administrative action (as in a licensing complaint with the therapist’s licensing board), then I highly recommend you consult with an attorney before you do anything. I have several listed on my Legal resources page. If there is not one listed for your state, you could still contact one of the others, since they may know the state’s laws and possibly have a referral for you. It’s important that you discuss your options and the possible impact of any actions you take, since they may have consequences down the road.

      If you feel comfortable letting us know what state you live in, someone else from that area may have other suggestions for you.

      ~ Kristi

    • Personally, I think this guy is off his rocker. In my experience, texts and email are generally only used for basic communications, and not for the therapeutic process. And if there’s anything remotely sexual going on (live or virtual), then he’s guilty of sexual misconduct. I encourage you to contact an attorney to discuss your options. You can also contact the complaint department of the guy’s licensing board and see what they say. You should be able to get information without having to file a complaint (or even reveal your name).

  2. Kristi, I cant tell you how much I appreciate ur attention to this matter. I have been doing research, will get informed before I take additional steps. I an afraid for my wife. I think i need therapy now, this was/is very tramatic for me. My sexuality and thought process are very scatterred and want to find reality. Is there specific support for spouses of adult survivor’s of sexual abuse as children? Add the layer of therapy abuse and I’m sure we have serious psychotheraeutic healing that needs to take place. She has cut me off since i found out. Just to say hi to or pick up the kids. The guy does this out of house under the guise of “prayer group” , then has dived into psychotherapy sessions with my wife for the past 2 years. I think his licenses were from Mexico. And he has had problems with churches when they questions his tequiniques and radical ways. I am not sure if he knows exactly what he’s doing with her. He’s 60 yrs old. He swore up and down they dont really “touch”…just fantasize. her only. But i did see that were him encouraging her…like, “i love how you express yourself, “you are so beautiful”…over the line even they dont touch based on everything i’ve read…thanks for “listening” ….

    • Yes, some healing is definitely called for, for both of you. I don’t know about specific groups for spouses of adult survivors, but you could check with some of the sexual abuse websites like RAINN.org. Check out my links and my resources pages for some possibilities.

      One of the things abusers do is isolate their victims—cut them off (or get them to cut themselves off) from family, friends, community, etc. I know it sounds weird, but victims often develop a kind of loyalty to their abusers and don’t want to betray them. So I’m not surprised that your wife has become more closed off since you found out. (Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery and Patrick Carnes’ The Betrayal Bond are just a couple of books that discuss these topics. See my Books and Media pages for more.)

      I encourage you to get some support, whether it’s a group or an individual therapist. Your local crisis center may have some resources. A referral from a trusted friend or family member would be best, if that’s a possibility. And do “shop around.” It’s important to find someone you feel comfortable with, so don’t be afraid to have a phone conversation and ask a bunch of questions before you agree to meet with somebody. Just seeing a therapist can itself be triggering for victims and spouses; comfort and trust are critical.

      Good luck!

      • I just talked ot my wife. Sh said the therapist “handled it professionally”. And helped her get over the fantasy. I asked her if he touched her, she said no. She had admitted to me in a moment of “clarity” or honesty in my original confrontation with the texts that she “was in love” with him. Present tense. She justified it with telling me our relationship had been over. Why would she say that in not to justify an inappropriate incident. She gave me some details, like they just pray for hours, the wife is there, and thats it. I asked her if she had tried to get him alone to live out her fantasy and she was evasive, basically said “he would always find a way to avoid it, he’s professional” i said so yes, she oushed back saying i was invading her personal provacy” i guess she really fantasizes about him/it” Good conversation with her about what did/didnt happen. I still think he touched her and the texts will prove it. She said she in consious of the reotic nature of the transference and that “it has been dealt with”. But the texts were recent. Should i just let her go and let her find out herself. Or get the authorities involved as it is unethical and illegal…and obvoisly dangerous for my wife. She denied being molested as a child. She retold the story and sais I misunderstood from the beginning. She said is fact she was not molested, nevr has been, Which blows up my whole theory that she was sekeing psychotherapy for that. She admitted understanding she was involed in psychotherapy via his guidance and dealing with the rejection from her mother and father. Your insight is invaluable.Thoughts?

        • Unfortunately, there’s really no way for me (or anyone else) to know what’s actually going on with your wife. I don’t know her, have never spoken with her, and I’m neither a psychotherapist nor a psychic, so anything I could say would be purely a guess. There’s no way to know how much of what she’s saying is truth, how much is denial, and how much is her being “under the influence.” I know you are troubled by all this and struggling with how to deal with it, and I see that you really want to help her. So I’d suggest you talk to a lawyer and/or a therapist and/or the authorities. Don’t commit yourself to any legal action until you’ve gotten some information about what the consequences are likely to be, or if it’s even worth your effort. I would also caution you to be careful, especially if you want to maintain some kind of positive relationship with her. If she is in an abusive or cult-like situation, then she may stand firm in her loyalty to him and resent any interference on your part. That’s why I’d suggest that you consult with a professional who can offer appropriate guidance and counsel. Find someone who has experience with adult victims (of abuse and possibly cults) and their partners, and who can help you figure out what to do.

          I wish you the best!

  3. Do I really need to put this therapist on hold ? This guys needs to be put in jail for fraud , they came to my hometown to tell they will provide protection for me turns out I was the one devastated from the experience. I am sorry , this guys are fraud ?

  4. Pingback: General and Emergency Information for Victims of Therapist Abuse – Surviving Therapist Abuse

  5. Hey there, do any legal aid places in NYC do therapist abuse cases? I’m below poverty-line and was abused by my therapist but one of her many power-tricks is that she knows I have no money to sue. What can I do to sue?

    • Hi Gina,
      I can’t speak for anyone else, but I did not have to put up any money to file a civil suit. That may have been because there was almost certain to be a financial settlement, of which my attorney would take a percentage, but I did not have to pay anything. You may want to call a couple of the attorneys listed on the Legal page here and see what they say about your case. You should be able to get a free consultation. And ask them to discuss with you your various options — civil suit, criminal suit, administrative suit.

      Good luck!

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