Suicide Watch

Can a 24-hour crisis hotline put callers on hold? The state will get back to you on that.

AAS has specific ethical and safety guidelines that must be followed before it certifies a hotline: Hotline workers must maintain a professional distance and never meet with clients face-to-face; they should not give out their real name; they should not discuss their own problems with callers in such a way that it dominates the conversation.

Frye contends that Berger had problems in all of those areas, and he shared his concerns with an investigator from the Colorado Mental Health Grievance Board in 1996. Berger "may have some face-to-face contact [with a client] when he has a particular interest in a female who has called the hotline," Frye told the investigator. And although Berger represented those sessions to the caller as a form of counseling, it was Frye's opinion that Berger used the contacts to develop "social relationships."

Frye also told the investigator about an incident involving a man who had led the suicide survivors' group. According to Frye, the group facilitator (a volunteer) became linked romantically with one of the female group members. The woman committed suicide, and the facilitator left LIS'N. But despite the tragedy, Berger reportedly brought the group leader back to head the sessions on a regular basis.

Dick Berger, executive director of Living Support Network, has been operating his suicide hotline out of his house.
Anthony Camera
Dick Berger, executive director of Living Support Network, has been operating his suicide hotline out of his house.

When he realized that Berger might be stepping over some ethical boundaries, Frye says, he could not sit idly by.

"At one point," he remembers, "I went to all the people around [Berger] who were in support of him, and I said, 'I'm trying to empower you people to get him off the line, to convince him that he needs to manage the volunteers, because he's using the line inappropriately for his social needs.'

"We met privately before meeting with Dick and decided that Dick either needed to get off the line or turn it into a talk line or that we would have to quit. We tried to encourage him to do just a talk line to meet his needs and individuals' needs in the community."

They also suggested that Berger remove himself from the line because his MS had affected his voice and sometimes made it difficult for him to be understood. "We gave him as much opportunity as we could. But he said no," Frye says. "He said he felt he needed to remain in the suicide arena because it was something that was not available anywhere else."

Frye quit after Berger refused to leave the line -- and he wasn't the only volunteer to go, he remembers.

But Berger says he was never taken aside by the volunteers, and that no one ever asked him to take himself off the call line. Suggestions that he used the line as an opportunity to meet women are "really inappropriate and untrue," he says. "That's not the idea of this at all."

Berger also says he knows "almost nothing" about any improper relationship that may have taken place between a group facilitator and a group member. Nor does LIS'N have any written regulations regarding such relationships. "It isn't articulated," he adds. "It's an unspoken rule."

A second complaint to the mental-health grievance board suggested that Berger was making inappropriate advances to callers.

In October 1995, Pat Rollins made a desperate call to LIS'N.

Rollins (not her real name) was despondent. She had been raped and wanted to die. She called LIS'N and told Berger of her intent. After Berger got off the call, he phoned the fire department. Firefighters rushed to Rollins's home, where she'd closed herself in a garage with an idling car. She was hospitalized overnight.

After her release from the hospital, Rollins called LIS'N a second time -- Berger had asked that she call back to let him know she was all right. They spoke for two hours, during which time Rollins revealed childhood sexual abuse and made other personal disclosures.

Rollins later told an investigator with the state grievance board that Berger, too, made some personal disclosures during that conversation. According to Rollins, Berger told her that he was going to have a penile implant to allow him to have sex and that he thought he could fall in love with her.

Rollins was taken aback by these revelations, she told the investigator, and wondered whether she had prompted them by talking with Berger about sexual abuse.

After that two-hour talk, Rollins said, Berger called her frequently, asking her to become a volunteer and asking when he might meet her in person. She eventually became so spooked by the calls that she had her phone number changed.

Rollins had started seeing a therapist after her suicide attempt, and she subsequently told the therapist about her conversation with Berger. The therapist then contacted Kathie Jackson, who helped Rollins file a formal complaint with the grievance board.

In her own letter to the board, Jackson requested that LIS'N be served with a cease-and-desist order until an investigation was completed and "all allegations resolved."

This time, both Jackson and Frye met with LIS'N's board of directors to discuss their concerns.

But the board "seemed to turn a blind eye to it," Frye says. "It was said that we had something against him and that it was personal. In actuality, it was strictly out of concern for people who were being victimized when they called his hotline."

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