A Reporter’s Dive Into the Legal Deep of Psychotherapy

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Last spring, I became obsessed with Joe Nocera’s podcast “The Shrink Next Door.” Many others did as well. It is about a prominent Manhattan psychiatrist named Isaac Herschkopf, who allegedly abused his patients for decades. One of those patients said he fell so thoroughly prey to the manipulation that he allowed Dr. Herschkopf to take over his home in the Hamptons.

As a columnist at The Times concentrating on life, culture and policy in New York — and as a person who has submitted to a fair amount of psychotherapy — I was deeply interested in the question the podcast implicitly posed: Why wasn’t regulation of the mental-health profession further along, especially given the way we think about power asymmetries in the age of #MeToo?

In an office, university or hospital setting, for example, it is clear where to go and what to do if you find yourself victimized by people abusing their power. There are supervisors and departments of human resources and so on. But what do you do if you feel your therapist has harmed you? Some patients might not recognize in the moment if they are getting good care or not; it can take years to make that determination.

As I set about thinking about all of this, I got in touch with Audrey Bedolis, a lawyer who has specialized in therapeutic malpractice for almost 30 years. She told me about a client she had several years before, who felt damaged by her treatment. The therapist her client had seen in 2010 and 2011 was named Dr. Keith Ablow. I had never heard of him. But as it happened, he was very well known to viewers of Fox News, where he had a long stint analyzing the psychological motivations of political leaders in ways that served the network’s ideological mission.

Often lawyers involved in litigation will seek reporters out to tell a client’s story in the hope that public attention will help win a case. That is not what happened here. By the time I met Ms. Bedolis and her client, they had abandoned plans for a lawsuit, and the statute of limitations on civil action had run out.

Her client, who goes by the name Monique in the article, had to undergo drug rehabilitation after she left Dr. Ablow’s care because she became dependent on the medications he had prescribed to her. Monique had a lot of documentation at hand that made her credible — she had copies of her prescriptions and records of her stay in outpatient rehab in Midtown Manhattan. Monique blamed herself harshly for getting into such an unhealthy dynamic with Dr. Ablow, whose many boundary transgressions, recounted in the article published last month, were very destabilizing to her. She also had texts and emails from her time with Dr. Ablow that illuminated what she considered those transgressions.

Those details alone, along with the fact of Dr. Ablow’s celebrity, were enough for a good story. But what really compelled me was that Monique turned out to be a therapist herself. This made it clear that really anyone could fall under the spell of a clinician. Because she was a therapist, Monique was extremely embarrassed by what had happened and was not eager to talk to a reporter — she felt she had nothing to gain by doing so. We talked and emailed first, and ultimately she agreed to meet and tell her story as long as she could use a pseudonym. She did not want her own patients to know what had happened. My editors agreed to grant this request for anonymity because of her unusual circumstance.

Years earlier, Monique wanted Dr. Ablow to suffer some sort of consequence. Ms. Bedolis had filed a complaint against Dr. Ablow on her behalf in 2012 with the New York state Office of Professional Medical Conduct. The office opened an investigation that year, but it did not interview Dr. Ablow until 2014.

Dr. Ablow, who declined to speak to me directly for my article, referred to Monique’s claims as “groundless” in a legal filing.

What perplexed Ms. Bedolis, and what she had only recently learned when I found her, was that the conduct office acknowledged in an October 2017 letter to Dr. Ablow that he had cared for Ms. Bedolis poorly and prescribed medications inappropriately. But it took no disciplinary action. In October 2017, the conduct office sent a letter to Ms. Bedolis saying that the case was closed and there was insufficient evidence to charge Dr. Ablow with anything.

He received no punishment or fine, despite the fact that the conduct office found his treatment approach problematic. In May, Dr. Ablow’s license was suspended in Massachusetts, where his primary office is. But that suspension cannot prevent him from operating as a “life coach.” The Ablow Center in Newburyport, Mass., is expanding its services. Dr. Ablow is appealing his suspension; a hearing on Feb. 5 will determine the future of his medical license.

Ms. Bedolis told me she kept wondering who is really protected from the system — patients or therapists. Through my reporting I learned that is not an easy question to answer.

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