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"I had been making excuses and thinking it was my imagination," Shulman says. "She confirmed what I had tried to dismiss for years."
Over the holidays in December 2001, Dabby went out of town. The vacation from social therapy cleared Van Meir's mind. She was also emboldened by Shulman, who had simply called the center one day and announced that, after four years of social therapy, she was quitting. Van Meir conducted some Web searches and began reading testimonials from former Newmanites. She e-mailed some of them, talked to cult experts, and the doubts she'd tried to hide for so long were validated.
Not long after, on a cold and damp Sunday evening, Van Meir made the 10-minute drive to the Atlanta Center for Social Therapy for the last time. She let herself in with her key, made her way to her makeshift office, and emptied her clients' files into a garbage bag. Even though her mind was made up, she found herself hurrying, worried that another therapist might show up and make her second-guess herself all over again. But the office was quiet. At the door, she took a last look around, hoisted the bag in her hand and walked out into the drizzle.
State law requires that virtually anyone practicing therapy in Georgia be licensed. In turn, the licenses oblige therapists to follow a strict code of ethics, enforced by a regulating body called the Georgia Composite Board of Professional Counselors, Social Workers and Marriage and Family Therapists.
The ethics code outlines several practices that would constitute "unprofessional conduct." One of them is "participating in dual relationships with clients that create a conflict of interest which could impair the licensee's professional judgment, harm the client, or compromise the therapy." Another is "knowingly withholding information about accepted and prevailing treatment alternatives that differ from those provided by the licensee."
Currently, the Composite Board is investigating complaints lodged against both Dabby and another top therapist at the center, Rachelle Moore. Beyond confirming the existence of the investigation, however, the secretary of state's office declined comment.
Helen Coale is a clinical social worker in Atlanta and the author of The Vulnerable Therapist, a book about ethical relationships between therapists and their clients. She also acts as a consultant to Van Meir -- sort of a professional sounding board -- and so has heard Van Meir's story in depth.
Coale says the Atlanta center has engaged in "such clear, flagrant violations, they're appalling." For instance, as Van Meir's supervisor, Dabby should have restricted his interactions with Van Meir to a strictly professional level, Coale says.
"You cannot have some kind of overlapping relationship," she says. Coale also believes the center is failing to alert clients what they're getting into.
"It's called informed consent. You're supposed to tell clients what kind of theoretical orientation you use, what kinds of other choices might be available to them."
Coale sees no sinister agenda at the center. But she says what goes on there crosses ethical lines.
"I don't think there's intentional damaging of clients. It's not in the same category as a therapist who seduces clients and has sex with them. This is a different kind of seduction."
Rick Ross, a national cult expert and frequent expert witness in cult-related trials, has harsh words for Newman and social therapy.
"Is it ethical for a therapist to pull a client from a professional relationship into working for the Newman operation? These [clients] are vulnerable; they're coming to therapy for a reason. They have problems they want to work out. They're not coming to join a movement or embrace the philosophy of a neopolitical guru or self-described Marxist."
Although he stops short of calling social therapy a cult, Ross says its practitioners are, by definition, in conflict.
"I see disturbing parallels between what has been considered a cult -- that is, a group that's personality driven and controlled by an authoritarian leader with no accountability -- and the Newman group," he says.
"You've got a dilemma for the people in Atlanta who are Newmanites. What takes precedence in their life is social therapy and Fred Newman. If push comes to shove, and they have to make a choice, their loyalties are with Mr. Newman, and that takes priority over their consideration of other matters."
The state Composite board that regulates counselors has the power to strip a therapist of his license to practice. This is what Van Meir and Shulman want.
"Honestly, I don't even care about their politics," Shulman says. "I don't think they should be practicing therapy here -- well, anywhere, really, but I'm more concerned with Atlanta. They're con artists is what they are. Totally deceptive and manipulative."
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