The Director of Proceedings charged that Ms Allen was guilty of professional misconduct. It was alleged that between 1 November 2002 and May 2003 Ms Allen formed a personal relationship which was harmful and/or potentially harmful to the complainant, who was at all material times her client.
Ms Allen was assigned to be the complainant’s occupational therapist in March 2001. The complainant’s diagnosis at the time was “anxiety/depressive/panic disorder.”
In November 2002 the complainant started emailing Ms B, a community support worker employed in the service where Ms Allen worked. The complainant’s emails to Ms B were sent outside of normal work hours and related to the complainant undertaking some web design work. Later in November 2002 Ms B, Ms Allen and their team manager decided Ms Allen and Ms B could continue to email the complainant in relation to him designing signs for the service. The team manager emphasised Ms Allen and Ms B should confine their emails with the complainant to work related matters. She emphasised they were not to build up relationships through emails.
By March 2003 Ms B thought the complainant had “a crush” on Ms Allen and that he was seeking Ms Allen’s attention more than was necessary.
On 1 May Ms Allen informed her team manager that the complainant had expressed strong feelings for her and that he believed Ms Allen reciprocated in some way. Ms Allen said that the complainant became angry when she explained that his feelings about her were not reciprocated.
On 5 May 2003 Ms Allen told her team manager that she had received an email from the complainant which stated: “I am off to secure a length of rope for my self now.” The team manager contacted appropriate health professionals who ensured the complainant was safe and she instructed Ms Allen and Ms B to cease all email contact with the complainant.
On 13 May 2003 the team manager commenced an internal investigation. Her inquires revealed:
- Ms Allen and the complainant had been in regular contact, outside of regular hours, by way of email and MSN;
- A large amount of personal disclosure had occurred during these communications, in which Ms Allen revealed a number of details about herself to the complainant and vice-versa;
- Ms Allen had met the complainant outside of work hours on two occasions to assist him with matters not directly associated with occupational therapy; and
- Ms Allen had sent the complainant an email birthday card when she was overseas and brought him small gifts from her holiday.
Following the investigations Ms Allen was moved to a position away from the service and attended a series of training sessions on boundary issues. She also underwent counselling.
Ms Allen fully accepted she had crossed professional boundaries and she expressed her deep remorse and sincere apologies for what had occurred. Ms Allen is not currently practising as an occupational therapist.
The Tribunal unanimously concluded Ms Allen breached the standards that the Tribunal expects of an occupational therapist in her position and she was guilty of professional misconduct.
The factors about the communications which influenced the Tribunal in reaching this conclusion were:
- Time of day: Ms Allen’s emails and MSN communications with her client occurred outside of normal hours, sometimes in the middle of the night;
- Frequency : The communications were very frequent, sometimes several a night;
- Duration: The communications commenced in mid November 2002 and continued through to early May 2003;
- Content: Ms Allen’s communications contained personal disclosures, poetry and messages that clearly encouraged her client to develop a hope and expectation that a romantic relationship might develop between Ms Allen and her client.
- Secret: By their very nature Ms Allen’s email and MSN communications were private. The Tribunal was very concerned that Ms Allen’s supervisor was unaware of the nature of these communications; even though Ms Allen appreciated her communications were leading her down a difficult path. There was also no record that Ms Allen was communicating with the complainant by way of email and MSN
- Gift and Card: Ms Allen’s decision to send her client a birthday card and to give him a gift on her return from overseas while not by themselves significant lapses of judgment did compound the problems when combined with Ms Allen’s other boundary breaches.
The Tribunal was satisfied that Ms Allen’s breaches of professional boundaries constituted negligence within the meaning of section 100 of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003.
The Tribunal considered Ms Allen required some assistance in identifying and maintaining professional boundaries and ordered the following conditions be imposed when Ms Allen recommences practise:
- Ms Allen must consult with and comply with any instructions or training given by Dr Louise Armstrong (or such other suitably qualified professional approved by the Occupational Therapy Board (the Board)) on boundary identification and maintenance;
- The above condition will remain in force until such time as the Board receives a report from Dr Louise Armstrong (or such other suitably qualified professional approved by the Board) confirming Ms Allen understands how to identify and maintain professional boundaries. This order must expire three years from the date Ms Allen recommences practice.
- Ms Allen must meet the costs of Dr Armstrong (or whomsoever is approved by the Board).
The Tribunal further ordered:
- Ms Allen pay $10,000 towards the costs of the Director of proceedings and $5,000 towards the costs of the Tribunal; and
- A summary of the Tribunal’s Decision be published in the Occupational Therapy Board of New Zealand’s newsletter.