Playtime Is Over

The state has barred a child psychologist from using adult sex toys in therapy sessions.

Dicke has the backing of Henry Coppolillo, a well-respected psychiatrist who directed the child-psychiatry division at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center for eleven years before going into private practice and eventually retiring. Coppolillo, with whom Dicke worked on cases as a lawyer and who later supervised Dicke while he was studying to become a psychologist, watched the taped therapy sessions and found "nothing inappropriate.

"This child had been subjected to an extreme form of abuse, and what he brought into therapy was a primitiveness, both in action and in language," says Coppolillo, who wrote a letter to the psychologist examiners' board in support of Dicke. "Dr. Dicke had to use the same kind of language and methods of communication to get through to the child. I've used anatomically correct dolls and dollhouses in which kids have acted out sexual intercourse, and I haven't said, 'Shame on you.' Children have also used primitive and foul language, and I haven't corrected them. The aim is not to correct and inhibit children, but to see what's making them so anxious. If you take this out of the context of the therapy, it's clear that people would be shocked."

Ralph Fisch also wrote a letter to the board supporting Dicke's therapy. But he and Coppolillo appear to be in the minority.

John Dicke believes he's found a way to help children who have been victims of sexual abuse.
John Johnston
John Dicke believes he's found a way to help children who have been victims of sexual abuse.
Karen believes Dr. Dicke's therapy was helping her son, Dallas.
John Johnston
Karen believes Dr. Dicke's therapy was helping her son, Dallas.

The therapists who reviewed the case at the request of the psychologist examiners' board chose to keep their opinions to themselves for now, since the matter has not yet been resolved.

One of those is Bruce Perry, a nationally known expert on child trauma who was chief of psychiatry for the Texas Children's Hospital at the Baylor College of Medicine before leaving to take a position with the Alberta Mental Health Board in Canada. "I would think that common sense should rule the day when trying to understand the sensibility or not of that kind of therapeutic approach," is all he will say.

But several local psychologists say that using dildos to treat kids is outrageous. Many of them asked not to be quoted because they felt uncomfortable commenting without having seen the tapes or interviewing the child.

"I was pretty appalled," says Gail Ryan, longtime program director at the Kempe Children's Center, one of the nation's premier treatment centers for abused kids. "I can't say it's something I've ever heard of. I have a hard time imagining what the theory would be, much less doing it. Kids use behavior and play to act out what they've learned or been exposed to. They generally find ways to express what they're ready to express, and when they resist talking about things that adults think are important for them to talk about, I think that should be respected.

"I just don't understand the whole thing," she continues. "It's beyond my comprehension."

Susan Van Scoyk, a child psychiatrist in private practice, has never heard of a therapist using dildos, either, and she doesn't recommend it. "In therapy, the golden rule is that you learn from the patient and introduce as few things as possible," she says. "It sounds pretty wild to introduce a dildo. People even think anatomically correct dolls are too suggestive, and they've fallen out of favor. Depending on the child and his verbal abilities, it can be impossible to determine what happened and what didn't, and so therapists get pushed into trying things that are unproductive at best or harmful at worst."

Van Scoyk says that the mother's presence in the sessions only complicates matters. "She could influence what the child says. Kids are smart and can pick up on whether Mom doesn't like Dad. The kid will be looking out of the corner of his eye to make sure that what he's saying is okay, because if he's already lost contact with his father, he may not want to lose her, too," she says. And even if there is no doubt that a child has been sexually abused, Van Scoyk says, using dildos in therapy is still problematic. "If he was, in fact, abused, then to be in a room with another male who has replicas of penises could be really scary. I would be concerned that it would be re-traumatizing. There are other symbolic ways to deal with a child's anger around these things than to have a replica that is so concrete."

Martinez, of the State Board of Psychologist Examiners, was more blunt. "In my personal opinion, I believe the therapy I witnessed on the tapes was tantamount to child abuse."

A police detective in Grand Junction for five years before taking a job with the Denver District Attorney's Office, Martinez also has a doctorate in psychology. He's been the head of the psychologist examiners' board since 1990.

"As a police officer, I investigated hundreds of child-abuse cases," he says, "and what I witnessed on those tapes was a re-traumatization of a child."

The use of dildos "is unheard of in therapy," he adds. "I did a literature review, and it isn't in any journals."

Other mothers whose children received dildo therapy argue that the treatment is cutting-edge. "Jean," the other Adams County mother whose little boy Dicke had been treating, believes the method got through to her son. "Jeremy" was eight years old when she first took him to see the therapist. "John Dicke was a godsend," says Jean, who has written a letter saying as much to the board of examiners.

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