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Pain at hands of her counsellor: A Burnaby woman's story of surviving authoritative abuse

Bernadine Fox sought therapy at a young age, but the person on the other side took advantage of her vulnerability. She recently received a provincial award for using her testimony to help her community.
Burnaby resident Bernadine Fox.

A Burnaby resident and mental health advocate was recently honoured for demonstrating courage, strength and willingness to serve her community.

Using her own story in inspiring others to never give up, Bernadine Fox won a Courage to Come Back Award which recognizes British Columbians who have overcome illness, adversity or addiction.

"I was really surprised," Fox said of learning she was chosen as one of five 2022 recipients in May by the Coast Mental Health Foundation.

"It's been an incredible experience. I'm very honoured to receive this and I know several people who have received this so I'm just doubly honoured to be included with that group of people who I think so highly of." 

Abuse of positional power

As a child, Fox had been through unthinkable circumstances and sought help from a therapist later in life.

However, the relationship turned into more pain at the hands of her counsellor.

She began seeing a therapist when she had just turned 30 and a pattern of abuse began. Fox said, because of the place of authority the therapist was in, she felt things outside of boundaries, like being in a committed relationship, were fine and was convinced to go along with things.

But she also thought if she didn't go along with them, she was crazy. 

"She invited me to attend a conference," Fox said as she described one of the first instances when something was wrong. 

"She made up this elaborate ruse that somebody had given her enough money to gift somebody with the ability to attend. And I now think, that was just made up and she was to choose who and she chose me." 

Fox said her therapist made all the travel and hotel arrangements, including booking one room with one bed.

"Now, if she had been a man, I would have understood that and I would have gotten it right away and I would have, you know, maybe spent more time looking at it," Fox explained, noting she was never asked how she felt about the situation.

Her therapy continued, and their relationship, as they ultimately bought a house together. 

She says it had three suites so they could "still pretend" they weren't living together.

Roughly three to four years after acquiring the house, Fox said she was having a hard time and wanted to go and find a counsellor to talk with. 

"At this point, she kind of panicked, which I didn't understand at the time because she had told me everything was ok, this was fine. What we were doing was fine," said Fox.

"But clearly, she couldn't afford me to go and talk to another counsellor because what was happening and what she was doing would have become evident." 

The relationship eventually started going separate ways, but both Fox and the therapist stayed in the house. 

"It was kind of like waiting on her hand and foot. By the time we were separated, my 24/7 was dictated by her." 

Once she became more aware of her being abused by someone in a position of authority, she decided it was time to take action.

Fox made the decision to report the therapist to the professional association she was involved in. She says they approached the association before her complaint was actually submitted. 

"I had confronted her in such a way that she knew there was a risk that I would complain to her association. She had written a letter to them saying, 'Just in case this person writes to you, you should know that you shouldn't take anything she says as real.' That's what she said." 

Once evidence and the complaint had been submitted, Fox said the association decided to look into the allegations.

The therapist asked them to put it on hold, but by the time the association had said they were going to proceed, she had already resigned. 

Fox contacted the police, but says she was told there was nothing they could do since they saw the relationship as between two consenting adults. 

She also tried to find a lawyer to sue civilly, which was her only option left. 

"I didn't have the money to hire a lawyer. I didn't have the emotional capacity to handle a civil case." 

While the allegations were never tested in court, the BC Crime Victim's Assistance Fund came to the conclusion in 2018 that Fox was a victim of sexual assault at the hands of her therapist and was entitled to crime victim benefits. 

In a foreward for Fox's book titled Coming to Voice, Dr. Colin Ross, a clinician, researcher, author and lecturer in dissociation and trauma-related disorders, says he reviewed extensive documentation provided by Fox of the fact she was a client for an extended period of time. 

He also says he examined travel photos, photos of Valentine's cards, travel logs and copies of registration at mental health conferences and at hotels the pair attended.

"I have worked with many women who have been sexually exploited by prior therapists, while the therapy was ongoing," Ross wrote. 

"In every case, the sexual misconduct was damaging, set the woman’s recovery back, and made it very hard for her to trust other mental health professionals. In a number of malpractice cases in which I acted as an expert witness for the plaintiff, the therapist admitted to numerous extreme boundary violations including a long-term sexual relationship. In most these cases of sexual misconduct, the therapist has been male, but in quite a few the therapist has been female.

"In my experience, sexual misconduct by a therapist never occurs in a vacuum. There are almost always numerous other types of boundary violations. These are often part of a grooming strategy during the recruitment phase of the relationship; they then create multiple forms of dependency and enmeshment that make it difficult to leave the perpetrator-therapist." 

Counsellors not currently regulated in B.C.

In B.C., those working as counsellors or therapists aren't currently bound to a regulatory body, making it harder for complaints to be heard and any disciplinarian action enforced. 

Counselling professionals are regulated in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Alberta is on the verge of regulation. 

Regulation is in progress for B.C. 

"There's still going to be bad people out there," Federation of Associations for Counselling Therapists in BC (FACTBC) chair Michelle Oucharek-Deo told the NOW

"We can't stop the bad people with regulation, but what we can do, is that if something does happen, there is actual legislation in place for counsellors so that the public has something to turn to." 

FACTBC was organized informally in 1997 as the Task Group for Counsellor Regulation. It was then registered under B.C.'s Society Act in March of 2014. It is composed of 13 associations that provide voluntary-self regulation. 

"I think regulation as a whole really does offer the population more opportunity to be able to feel more secure in the people that they are choosing," Oucharek-Deo added. 

"It gives them more opportunities to be able to choose someone who is regulated and a higher percentage rate of increased public protection."

Government regulation could include setting entry-to-practice that applicants have to meet to become eligible for registration, competency-based examinations, supervision reports and evidence of training and practical experience in the profession. 

Other advantages to government regulation include establishing an ethical code and practice of standards, requiring registrants hold appropriate professional liability insurance, providing for fair and timely investigation and resolution of public complaints and including procedures for formal disciplinary hearings.