Complaints that a Denver-based suicide phone line is understaffed, that its service is inconsistent and that its volunteers are untrained have once again gone unanswered by the Colorado Mental Health Grievance Board.
After examining the latest complaints against the Living Support Network (LIS'N) -- which include allegations that executive director Dick Berger used sexually inappropriate language with women callers and utilized the line to "develop social relationships," and that the phone frequently goes unanswered ("Suicide Watch," October 5, 2000) -- the grievance board concluded earlier this month that it has no jurisdiction in the matter.
The hearing was the third held in six years regarding problems at the Living Support Network. Each time, boardmembers have reluctantly concluded that state law prohibits them from taking any disciplinary action. Because Berger provides a free service and doesn't represent what he does as "psychotherapy," he can essentially do as he pleases, says Amos Martinez, program administrator for the board. "[LIS'N] is pretty much a self-funded operation now. As long as [Berger] is providing the technology and is not providing psychotherapy, the board has no jurisdiction.
"Certainly, there were problems," Martinez concedes. "That's what was investigated. But there's absolutely no evidence that anyone has paid for the service or that [Berger] held himself out to be a psychotherapist. It's basically a volunteer service that he offers."
That Martinez was even able to offer those statements is an accident in timing. Had the complaints against LIS'N been generated after February 1 or the investigation delayed until after that date, he would have been unable to comment at all. As of February 1, much of what the grievance board does is closed to public scrutiny. Complaints about therapists are now considered confidential. Boardmembers' deliberations regarding investigations are closed. Only if the board takes disciplinary action can an issue be made public.
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The change is the result of Senate Bill 101, which was passed last year. According to Martinez, the amended law brings the mental-health grievance board into conformity with open-records rules regarding the state medical board and other like entities.
"The motivation for the change is the result of several claimants who have filed suits against their therapists," he explains. "They would obtain copies of dismissed cases and try to use them as evidence that their therapist was somehow improper or incompetent or had somehow violated their rights. It was the misuse of dismissed cases, really -- the mischief caused by having the dismissed cases opened."
As for Berger, he plans to keep his line open. "LIS'N still exists, and it will continue," he says. "But at this point, it is being handled on a much more limited basis."
He and a single volunteer are the only people who will be answering the crisis line. "We don't need more volunteers, because that implies a lot of training, and then that is where the efforts end up going."