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GF PSYCHOLOGIST FACES CHARGES FOR UNETHICAL CONDUCT
Sarah Smith, Herald Staff Writer
A Grand Forks psychologist has been accused by a state ethics board of unethical conduct, giving teen-age male patients physical examinations during psychotherapy.
Another psychologist, who alerted authorities, said one of the youths reported that the psychologist in question "touched me all over" and "felt him up."
The psychologist is Dr. Russell Blomdahl, 48, who practices at his home and until three months ago was a physician's assistant at the UND Family Practice Center.
Blomdahl was charged in Arizona nine years ago of 13 counts of child molestation and abuse. He was acquitted of those charges.
The charges pending before the North Dakota Board of Psychologist Examiners involve three youths.
They stem from what the board calls a "dual relationship" between two professions -- being a licensed psychologist and a registered physician's assistant. The board contends that his conduct violated ethical principles formulated by the American Psychological Association, which prohibits members from engaging in conduct that could "exploit the trust and dependency" of clients, students and subordinates.
Basically, psychologists must avoid any conduct that could confuse a client who is seeking counseling for emotional distress.
A hearing has been set for Nov. 15-17 in Grand Forks. If the board finds that Blomdahl violated ethical principles, his license could be suspended or he could be reprimanded. The board also could take no action against his license.
Alan Larivee, attorney for Blomdahl, said his clients "denies any and all of the allegations" and said his client would not talk to the Herald. The Herald was able to contact Blomdahl, but Blomdahl said Larivee had advised him not to comment on the matter.
Larivee also raised questions about conflict of interest by two board members in the case, Dr. Kenneth Carlson and Dr. Leland Lipp, both Grand Forks psychologists.
The North Dakota State Board of Psychologist Examiners dismissed charges of child abuse against Blomdahl. in June. The child abuse complaint was filed by the board Sept. 14, 1987. An amended complaint charging Blomdahl with unethical conduct was filed June 8.
The complaints against Blomdahl by the parents of three adolescent males and by Grand Forks psychologist Dr. Sheila Deitz, call into question a "hands-on" type of therapy, a bolistic method of treating body and mind.
Complaints surfaced in the summer of 1987, when an adolescent male told an addiction counselor at United Recovery Center that he was subjected to physical examinations during psychotherapy, which the board considers unacceptable practice. The counselor alerted the youth's parent, who wrote to Carlson, who practices with Deitz and Lipp.
Their letter, dated July 21, 1987, states. "We would like you to look into this for us and begin the investigation of the possible sexual abuse."
That same day, Carlson wrote to Bill Delmore, assistant attorney general for the Health Department and former attorney for the board.
Carlson's letter in part reads, "We have heard of Dr. Blomdahl's apparent aberrant behavior in the past, however, this is the first documentation we have that could constitute a formal complaint against him. I believe it is imperative that we act quickly in regards to this gentleman. He claims to practice also as a nurse practitioner apparently allowing him to do the physical exams that he does. As you can see, however, there are clear concerns about the ethical nature of this coupled with therapeutic treatment. This would minimally represent a dual relationship meaning a violation of our ethical code has taken place."
About that time, Deitz was evaluating two adolescent males for a custody hearing when one boy complained about Blomdahl. Deitz filled out a Department of Human Services complaint form that was forwarded to the board.
"I have received information which raises the possibility of sexual abuse of the children by another professional in the case, Dr. Russell Blomdahl," Deitz noted. One child related that Blomdahl "touched me all over." The boy elaborated to say that Blomdahl had "felt him up," Deitz said.
"At the very least, the children are confused by the need for physical examinations as part of psychotherapy ...," Deitz said in her complaint.
In a second letter urging the board to take action, Carlson wrote, "This newest report of suspected child abuse or neglect was left in my box with a note attached to `Please bring this to the board's attention...I bring this to your attention to add to the unfortunate growing list of concerns regarding Dr. Blomdahl's behavior and take this opportunity to again urge you to move along with this quite quickly ... Clear concerns over this gentleman's demeanor are again raised."
The attorney general's office dispatched a crime bureau agent to investigate the allegations one year ago. That report remains sealed. The Grand Forks County state's attorney's office said it received a few calls on the case, but prosecutor J.E., Rick Brown said a file never was opened because the victims pursued their case administratively with the state ethics board.
The controversy over Blomdahl's methods of treatment has dogged him for nearly a decade. In 1979, police in Yuma, Ariz., were notified when an adolescent male complained of improper therapy by Blomdahl. Police there launched an "extensive investigation," police spokesman Jan Schmidt said.
In April 1979, a Yuma County grand jury returned a 13-count indictment against Blomdahl. He was charged with seven felony counts of child molestation, four felony counts of sexual abuse and two felony counts of lewd and lascivious behavior. The charges involved nine adolescents who had been treated by Blomdahl. They complained that they had been subjected to unorthodox methods of treatment and numerous physical examinations, including genital examinations. Yuma County Attorney David Ellsworth said.
Blomdahl was acquitted of all charges Aug. 31, 1979, after a four-day jury trial. The Arizona Joint Board of Medical & Osteopathic Examiners and the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners both declined to take administrative action against Blomdahl's license because of the acquittal.
Douglas Cerf, executive director of the Arizona medical board, said, "There is no substance to the allegations that you functioned as a physician's assistant in either an unprofessional, unethical, or incompetent manner."
According to case files obtained by the Herald through North Dakota's Open Records law, a complaint also was lodged against Blomdahl while he was practicing at Northeast Human Services in Grand Forks in 1985. It was not sent to the board.
Dr. Timothy Harris was regional director at the time. He said an adolescent male complained that "he was uncomfortable about how the sessions went" with Blomdahl. The youth complained about being touched, Harris said.
Officials at Northeast asked Blomdahl to conduct sessions with his door open, to alleviate patient tension.
"We were treating it as a potentially difficult situation," Harris said. "But I don't remember if he had to leave the door open in that case or in all cases."
Harris said it isn't unusual for adolescents to complain about therapy.
"Therapeutic relationships are difficult to develop," he said. "You're not a friend, not a surrogate parent. Adolescents aren't given to talk therapy like adults are. They tend to be more action-oriented."
But Harris said he doesn't condone a hands-on approach.
"My feeling is it's better not to touch the client," Harris said. "It's too easily misinterpreted."
Dr. Mark Hanlon, director of the North Dakota Board of Psychologist Examiners, said members view the complaints against Blomdahl as serious and have expressed a desire to pursue the case to a confusion. The state has 120 licensed psychologists.
According to board record, negotiations between Larivee and Delmore broke off last December when Blomdahl refused to accept disciplinary actions. Board members urged a second hearing date be set. The attorney general's office provided an attorney for the board, and Delmore was appointed hearing officer.
"It is fairly unusual to have a hearing," Hanlon said in a recent interview. "This will be only the second one in three years. It's not unusual to have complaints -- we have several a year. But they're usually resolved without a hearing."
Hanlon said the five-member board will have to "determine the validity of the complaints. Obviously the board considers the complaints quite serious."
Three of the five members must vote to take action, Hanlon said. Any administrative action taken can then be appealed to state district court. Besides Carlson, Lipp and Hanlon, other board members include Dr. Ralph Kolstoe of UND's psychology department and Bismarck psychologist Lynn Carver.
Because Lipp and Carlson practice with Deitz, Larivee said they have a conflict of interest in the case. Deitz, Kolstoe and Carlson said it would be inappropriate for them to comment on the case, but Carlson said he doesn't see any conflict of interest.
Dr. William Mann, a family practitioner who supervised Blomdahl at UND's Family Practice Center, also declined to talk about Blomdahl, as did two of Blomdahl's former supervisors, Dr. Howard Willson of Thermopolis, Wyo., and Dr. Raymond Muhr or Cheyenne, Wyo. Mann said "it's none of my business" if Blomdahl still functions as a physician's assistant. The state licensing board indicated that Blomdahl renewed his license last spring to be a physician's assistant.
Delmore said the case may become a test case for psychotherapy professionals practicing in two fields. He said it is "very complex," Delmore declined further comment on the case, saying that as hearing officer, he must maintain impartiality.
Jerry McMartin, another assistant attorney general, will act as the board's attorney. He has declined much comment in the case because he is new to the staff.
Attorney General Nicholas Spaeth said McMartin has consulted the American Psychological Association to see whether the association has a position on whether psychologist can practice in two different professions.
"It is a critical legal issue and a difficult case," Spaeth said. "His career is on the line. We are proceeding as quickly as we can but trying to maintain fairness."
Grand Forks Herald, September 23, 1988