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Bill would change complaints process of psychologists set by court

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When a judge in a family court case appoints a psychologist to work with the parties, state law requires that complaints about poor performance, ethical violations and other problems go to the judge rather than to the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners.

Because of that, a state lawmaker says, many families, particularly those in divorce cases, feel that their complaints aren’t being handled properly because a judge may not have the background to evaluate their concerns properly.

“A lot of parents feel their voices aren’t being heard and their concerns aren’t being properly answered,” said Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa. “This is about children and families being alienated from their children.”

Smith authored SB1439, which would allow complaints about court- ordered psychologists to be taken directly to the Board of Psychologist Examiners instead of a judge. It addresses a 2009 law that prevents the board from considering complaints against court-ordered psychologists unless a court finds a “substantial basis” to refer the complaint.

The Senate Judiciary Committee and Health and Human Services Committee have endorsed the measure, and it was awaiting action by the full Senate.

The way complaints against court-appointed psychologists have been dealt with has changed over the past decade. A 2004 law created a hybrid system in which individuals would go directly to the board and a screening committee would evaluate the complaint.

The 2009 law removed any direct interaction with the board.

Brent Miller, a paralegal with Conant Law in Phoenix, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 12 that judges don’t have the means or screening ability to address such complaints. He said the bill would connect those who have concerns with trained professionals.

“We changed it from the psychology board to the courts, who don’t have the ability to properly vet the process,” he said.

Miller said misconduct has been going unresolved under the current system.

“We’ve had people strip-searched before, we’ve had people who have been alienated by their parents,” he said. “It’s caused protracted litigation of independent verification.”

Darla Hyche, 29, told the panel she has been fighting to gain custody of her children for two years but hasn’t even been able to even see them because of what she alleges is an unethical court-appointed evaluator.

“I took it to the (Board of Psychologist Examiners) and they told me I had to go through a judge,” she said.

Hyche said the judge denied her request for a hearing and denied her a second time when she provided additional evidence.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said.

Stuart Goodman, a lobbyist for the Board of Psychologist Examiners, testified against the measure, saying that although the current system has problems the proposed change is equally flawed.

“I will accept that complaints about it are legitimate,” he said. “At the same time, we have licensees subject to harassment and jeopardized who have a legitimate conversation.”

John Beck, a licensed psychologist at Scottsdale Lincoln Healthcare Network, said he has lost track of the number of complaints the board received about his work as a court-appointed psychologist before the current law.

“None of my complaints were related to treatment; all have been used for harassment,” he said.

Beck said it would be devastating if complaints were taken up with the board again.

“Insurance paid for the attorneys but not the emotional damage,” he said. “I would not practice family law again if this bill were passed.”