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Therapist accused of touching MHA patient inappropriately

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of October 11, 2012)
Photo of a text message sent to patient by therapist.

A counselor at the Mental Health Association, who lost his license for three years in the 1990s for having sex with a patient while working in Tampa, has been accused of touching a young woman patient inappropriately during numerous counseling sessions here earlier this year as well as sending flirty texts to her smartphone.

The patient, who is not named here because of privacy concerns, said she told Irene Acosta, who was MHA clinical director at the time, about the touching (which she describes in detail further down in this article), and Acosta told her the complaint would be reported to MHA superiors for appropriate action.

“I told Kris Sarkauskas (MHA President) what I was told by the patient about Michael massaging her. Kris said to remove the counselor immediately from one-on-one sessions,” said Acosta, who has been put on unpaid leave from MHA following revelations that she was practicing without a license.

Sarkauskas said she was not told. “No client staff reported that any allegation ... had been made.”

MHA Chairman of the Board, Bob Young, however, said Sarkauskas told him recently that she had been told “by staff” at the time about the patient complaint. “Kris told me she knew about the shoulder rubs and was involved in removing him (the counselor) from working with women,” said Young.

The counselor, named by the patient, was Michael Fitzgerald, 68, who denies any improper activity.  “I did nothing inappropriate,” he said.  Fitzgerald was not fired, nor was his alleged behavior reported to authorities outside of MHA.

“It was not such a big deal. It was not desirous, but it was not sex and not illegal,” said MHA chairman Young.

Sarkauskas also claimed to have been unaware that Fitzgerald had problems before he was hired at MHA.

Public records show he lost his license for three years between 1992 and 1995 for having sex with a patient when he worked as a licensed clinical social worker in Tampa.

According to the state’s finding in that case, Fitzgerald was guilty of “committing an act upon a patient or client which would constitute sexual battery or ... sexual misconduct.” His actions, said the administrative complaint of the Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage and Family Therapy and Mental Health Counseling, “failed to meet the minimum standards of performance in professional activities....”

When Fitzgerald’s license was restored in 1995, he was hired by the Mental Health Association in Vero Beach.

“I had no knowledge of the previous offense....Mr. Fitzgerald holds a valid license,” said Sarkauskas.

The allegations by a patient about questionable activity at MHA mark the second time in a month that disclosures have rocked the revered nonprofit organization, which is known for providing immediate access to people with mental health issues in Indian River County.

At a minimum, the MHA seems to take a remarkable lack of concern about running background checks on prospective professional employees.

In late September, 32963 revealed that clinical director Acosta, practicing without a license because the state didn’t recognize her diplomas from an unaccredited diploma mill, had previously been arrested and convicted on a similar charge.

The woman alleging the recent misconduct at MHA is much younger than her former counselor, Michael Fitzgerald, and works on the barrier island.

As she told her story, often weeping during it, she was encouraged by a close friend with her – a prominent barrier island resident – whom the young woman told about the touching at the time she was in therapy with Fitzgerald.

Bea (not her real name) went to the MHA clinic a year ago in late September, 2011 wanting to work on problems with intimacy and trusting men because she had been physically and sexually abused as a child and young woman.

“My fears were keeping me from having a relationship and I wanted to try to work through them,” she said.

She was assigned to Fitzgerald.

At first, things “went great,” she said. Fitzgerald got her to talk about a lot of the reasons for her pain and fear and helped her bring them to the surface. “He was very helpful. He got me to open up,” she said.

But about four months into the therapy, when Bea said she completely trusted him, he changed how the sessions worked.

In January, he began asking her if she’d like a hug during counseling. She would say no, and he’d ask her to explain why not. She would respond: “Because I don’t want you to hug me.” He would then tell her, she said, that she hadn’t worked through her problems and she needed to be more trusting.

He would take her to the “safe place,” he explained. Then, he would stand over her as she sat in a chair and press his fingers against different parts of her body: her forehead, neck, sternum, stomach, thighs, shins and feet. This ritual, he said, was how he got her from the uncomfortable place into the “safe place.”

He would tell her that he could go with her into the safe place if she would take both of his hands.

Next, he would pull a chair up right in front of her with his knees on the outside of hers and his legs spread wide apart and he would take her hands and hold them.

“He was so close I could feel his breath on my face,” she said.

After several therapy sessions of touching, he began giving her back massages to help her “relax more.”

He would begin by rubbing her head then moving his hands slowly, in a rotating motion, down her neck, shoulders, back and sides to the top of her buttocks. “He didn’t touch my breasts or crotch but the touching was almost everywhere else and very familiar,” she said.

His actions made her terribly uncomfortable: “I was struggling mentally the whole time, trying to trust him that I needed to go along or it meant the therapy wasn’t working.”

By late February, he rarely spoke about therapy and her issues in their sessions. Instead, he talked a lot about himself and gave her details of having sex with a past girlfriend, Bea said. He talked about the music he liked and what he wanted to listen to with Bea. He rubbed her, as before. He started texting her and told her to text him if she needed him.

“Several times when I was having panic attacks, I texted him,” she said. “But he wouldn’t answer me. Then, I’d get an oddly friendly text a day later.”

“It is me again,” he’d write.

He signed his name Scaaty, an acronym for “still crazy after all these years.”

He asked her to figure out why that was what he called himself. He gave her a few music CDs he liked.

“I could see where he was heading, and I did not want a sexual relationship with my counselor,” she said.

When she went over his head to the clinical director and complained – and Fitzgerald was removed as her therapist – he texted her: “I haven’t heard from you. Sometimes, I wonder about you.... I guess it’s a sign that you’re doing a lot better and don’t need me as much....”

In late September, five months after Bea complained, Fitzgerald’s name was still on the MHA website as a counselor under contract. But around the time 32963 began asking questions last week, his name disappeared.

Friday evening, an MHA receptionist called and asked Bea to meet with MHA psychiatrist Erwin Ramos for a therapy session Tuesday, Oct. 9th.

But she decided not to go.

“I’m afraid to go to MHA again,” said Bea. “It’s so hard to know at this point who is trustworthy there.”

 “MHA has a Zero Tolerance policy regarding such allegations,” President Sarkauskas responded. “No further comments can be made to specific patient/case allegations as that is a violation of the law.”