Psychologist disqualified and prohibited for boundary violations

15 Feb 2021

A tribunal has disqualified a psychologist from applying for registration and prohibited her from providing any mental health, psychological or counselling services for two years after finding the practitioner’s boundary violations with a patient amounted to professional misconduct.

The Psychology Board of Australia (Board) became aware of Ms Meulblok’s behaviour in March 2018 when a patient made a notification of a personal and intimate relationship with Ms Meulblok to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra). The Board took immediate action in the form of imposing conditions on her registration and started an investigation into the allegations.

In September 2018, the Board referred Ms Meulblok to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (the tribunal). In December 2018 Ms Meulblok decided not to renew her registration as a psychologist.

It was alleged in the tribunal that Ms Meulblok:

  • transgressed professional boundaries by engaging in an inappropriate dual relationship with her patient;
  • provided treatment that was not evidence-based and not clinically justified, namely ‘energy medicine’ therapy; and
  • failed to maintain privacy and confidentiality and transgressed professional boundaries by discussing the patient with her husband and encouraging the patient to pursue a friendship with her husband.

The tribunal found that the conduct amounted to professional misconduct.

The tribunal noted that although the conduct was not predatory or criminal and did not involve a sexual relationship, there were a number of aggravating features which relocated it to the more serious end of boundary violations by a psychologist. These factors included that:

  • the patient was particularly vulnerable because of his history, which Ms Meulblok was aware of;
  • a high level of trust existed between Ms Meulblok and the patient, and harm was caused including the patient’s loss of trust in therapeutic processes and practitioners, and
  • Ms Meulblok used the delivery of therapy to develop the personal relationship, including the use of so-called ‘energy medicine’ to physically touch the patient, which was opportunistic and misrepresented the therapy as evidence-based.

The tribunal also noted that Ms Meulblok:

  • was responsible for initiating the romantic relationship, and escalating it to a physical relationship, despite being aware of her professional obligations;
  • made no attempt to raise and properly deal with her feelings and conduct in formal supervision;
  • used her financial circumstances to place psychological pressure on the patient to conceal their relationship;
  • continued to attempt to keep the patient in a relationship after he repeatedly requested she stop, and
  • seriously breached the patient’s privacy when she attempted to engage the patient in a relationship with her husband.

The tribunal was of the view that the breach of boundaries ‘lies so far outside the practice of psychology that it demonstrates a preparedness to utilise the position of power and trust as a registered psychologist to pursue the person’s own interests over the needs of the patient, and demonstrates a failure (or refusal) to recognise the inherent vulnerability and power imbalance between psychologist and patient.’

The tribunal commented that as an experienced psychologist there was no doubt that Ms Meulblok ought to have known better, and also had regard to the fact that Ms Meulblok cooperated with the disciplinary process, took full responsibility for her conduct early on, demonstrated remorse and undertook rehabilitative action.

On 13 May 2020 the tribunal reprimanded Ms Meulblok, disqualified her from applying for registration as a registered health practitioner for a period two years, and prohibited Ms Meulbok from providing any health service involving the provision of mental health, psychological or counselling services for a period of two years.

The full tribunal decision is available on the Austlii website.

 
 
Page reviewed 15/02/2021