It seems like common sense. Therapists, psychologists, counselors, social workers and the like should perform a background check since these individuals are highly involved in the private matters of a person's mental health. However, the State of Maryland does not currently require background checks of its mental health professionals. House Bill 56, the civil portion of Lynette's Law was drafted to change that and make it so that these professionals that deal with highly sensitive personal information shall perform a background check. The Maryland State Board of Professional Counselors and Therapists later retorted with their own bill, HB 712, that stated licensees may be required to pass background checks thus striking out the power of HB 56 and essentially keeping the status quo with an option to perform the checks. These two bills are currently battling it out in Health and Government Operations (HGO).
HB 56 has been on the table since it was pre-drafted in November by Delegate Michael Smigiel, but has been an essential part of the Lynette's Law movement for over a year. This much-needed proposed legislation was in response to the discovery that Richard O'Meara, a former Maryland therapist who committed therapy sex abuse, is a convicted felon for aggravated assault against a 15 month old in Pennsylvania and lied on his application when he filed for his license in Maryland. Had a background check been performed, this conviction would have been revealed, he would have never received his license, and he would never have been in a position to exploit and abuse his patients.
The embarrassed board submitted their bill after they were grilled in front of the HGO committee on January 24. A recent amendment to HB 712 would change the terminology from "may" to "shall," but this is the same board that has failed to understand and recognize the dangers of therapy sex abuse. Therapist abuse is using the imbalance of power in the therapeutic relationship to control, manipulate, and sexually exploit clients. It's a growing epidemic across America and is now illegal in 23 states, most recently New York which has classified the offense as statutory rape. The board's Executive Director, Tracey DeShields, in front of the House Judiciary Committee for HB 60, the criminal portion of Lynette's Law, admitted she felt there was no difference between a dentist or a heart doctor having sex with a patient and a therapist taking advantage of and having sex with a patient: “What's the difference?”
Other confusing testimony from DeShields during the HB 60 hearing included:
Delegate Michael McDermott: “It would seem that this bill, if we were to adopt it, would provide a higher level of scrutiny for your profession and would protect your profession. Would you agree?”
DeShields: “You know, delegate, I appreciate the question I just don't think, really, I'm in a position to answer that.”
Delegate Michael Smigiel: “As the Executive Director for the Professional Board of Counselors and Therapists do you agree that a person in authority such as counselor, or a psychologist, or a psychiatrist who has authority over a person, if they have sexual relations with them that can never be consensual?”
DeShields (after the board testified in the HB 56 hearing that a therapeutic relationship is a position of authority): “I don't know that you can argue that a therapist or a counselor actually has authority over an individual.”
Delegate Sam Arora: “I don't know is a fine answer, but I've heard you say, 'we like the amendments' and it says here opposition. I think it's just fair that we know where the board is coming from, and I think that's been confusing. … Does the board have a position?”
DeShields: “The board has no position.”
The HGO committee and its Chairman, Delegate Pete Hammen, and Sub-Committee Chairman, Eric Bromwell, are intelligent and insightful enough to recognize that supporting HB 712 would be supporting the board that enabled the abuse through its relaxed practices and its failure to recognize the severity of therapy sex abuse, while supporting HB 56 and Lynette's Law would be a show of support for victims of this atrocity and a sign of good faith to Marylanders that they plan to protect others from someone like Richard O'Meara waltzing into a highly sensitive practice. A positive vote on House Bill 56 and the Lynette's Law movement is supporting a safer mental healthcare environment in Maryland.