Close to the Canadian border, in a small township called Watton, two unassuming Christian folk, Lale and Joan Roberts, had brought up their three daughters. It was the sort of community where nothing much ever happened. They may yet prove to make history.
Lale and Joan’s younger daughter has Down’s syndrome. I shall call her Lily – not her real name. They had an older daughter still living at home that I shall call Katie – again not her real name.
Seven years ago, Lale and Joan discovered that Katie, then aged 17, had been engaging in ‘inappropriate sexual conduct’ with a ‘family friend’.
This deeply conservative couple sought professional advice from the ‘Salmi Christian Counselling Service’ in the human form of Kathryn Salmi, a licensed professional counsellor. Katie went off to live with ‘family friends’ – not the ‘family friend’ mentioned before, but a couple who were members of another church.
Within a short time of counselling beginning with Kathryn Salmi, Katie allegedly ‘remembered’ that her father had been physically and sexually abusing her since the age of five…supported by her new counsellor, Katie confronted her parents with these allegations – and also pointed out that she had a deeply vulnerable younger sister, Lily, still being cared for by her parents, who she was sure was being similarly abused.
Kathryn Salmi reported her account of Katie’s allegations to the Department of Human Services (child protection) and also to the Michigan State Police. Life was never going to be as simple as making homespun ‘native art’ out of twigs again for the Roberts.
Investigators found no evidence that Lily, the younger child, was being or had been, physically or sexually abused. The third child, older than Katie gave evidence that:
She described her parents as fundamentalist Christians who hold strong beliefs and practice discipline that she felt was emotionally and physically abusive, but she nevertheless stated that she did not believe that her father would hurt L or K. She also stated that she never observed anything that could be characterised as sexual abuse in the home. The investigator ultimately determined that it was unnecessary to take any action. Police officers also investigated and reviewed K’s allegations, but no charges were brought against Lale or Joan Roberts.
I have highlighted the word ‘investigated’ because there was a major ‘flaw’ in this investigation – Katie had turned 18 in the following weeks, an adult, and thus they couldn’t force either the counsellor to reveal her notes of the ‘recovered memory sessions’ with Katie, nor physically examine Katie to ascertain whether she was still a virgin. However, the allegations had been made before Katie was 18 – and not reported until she became an adult some weeks later, thus violating child protection law.
Mr and Mrs Roberts sued Kathryn Salmi, the counsellor, for inducing ‘false memories’ in their daughter:
After Salmi “improperly implanted, or reinforced false memories of physical and sexual abuse,” Lale and Joan maintained, K severed all ties with her parents, investigators subjected them to civil and criminal investigations, and the community become aware of the allegations.
In fact the Robert’s local Pastor barred them from their church, adding that their youngest daughter, Lily, could no longer attend music recitals – apparently the ‘pianist was a strong proponent of repressed memory therapy, which he promoted through books on Satanic ritual abuse’….
The local court ruled that the therapist was not liable in tort for damages caused to a third party by her actions and/or treatments. The Roberts appealed and the Court of Appeal overturned the lower court.
Now on April 6th, the Supreme Court will hear arguments to determine whether a therapist is liable for damage caused to third parties by the choice of therapies employed by licensed therapists.
To get this far has cost the Roberts many tens of thousands of dollars – and Mrs Roberts has ambitiously embarked on a law degree. I wish her well. She is crowd funding to help pay for this.
Needless to say, the Roberts totally refute the allegations made against them and not a shred of evidence has ever been produced to support those allegations – the issue is not whether the allegations were or could have been true, but:
The court will consider whether a mental health professional has a duty of care to third parties who might foreseeably be harmed by the use of techniques that cause a patient to have false memories of sexual abuse.
It will be a case worth watching.