Investigation into B.C. therapist uncovers 4th dubious degree


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A B.C. psychotherapist accused of advertising three phoney graduate degrees has been disciplined after an investigation found she failed in her duty to be honest and follow the law.

Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg of Kelowna also falsely claimed to have a baccalaureate degree when she applied for certification with the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association (CPCA), according to a discipline report from the voluntary professional organization.

Schuilenberg was forced to hand over two of her professional counselling designations after breaching four sections of the CPCA’s code of ethics, the Oct. 25 discipline report says. That includes sections requiring honesty in public representation, professional integrity, legal conduct and maintaining competence.

But the decision does not affect Schuilenberg’s ability to work as a therapist or her membership in the CPCA.

As a voluntary organization, the CPCA doesn’t have the power to bar someone from practise, and the disciplinary decision says that while Schuilenberg’s credentials have changed, her “professional competency was not shown to be lacking.”

In an emailed statement, Schuilenberg told CBC, “I am profoundly disappointed by the determination of the discipline committee and will continue to pursue a resolution which more accurately reflects my professional history.” 

Until this year, Schuilenberg called herself a “doctor of psychology” online, used the honorific “Dr.” and claimed she’d earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate in the space of just four years. At the same time, she told a local news outlet she didn’t have a high school diploma.

The complaint against her was filed by Sharon Pham, a counselling psychology professor at Providence Theological Seminary in Manitoba, who alleged that Schuilenberg’s degrees “are not credible and possibly fraudulent.” 

On Monday, Pham told CBC that the disciplinary decision was “a step in the right direction,” but she believes it didn’t go far enough.

“The consequences are not strict enough given the gravity of her breaches. They should have expelled her from the organization,” Pham said.

Psychologist Sharon Pham looked into Schuilenberg’s credentials with the help of her husband, dentist Joe Pham. (Supplied by Joe Pham)

Pham started asking questions when one of her students was completing a practicum under Schuilenberg’s supervision. The student alleged that Schuilenberg had encouraged seeing patients face-to-face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pham and her husband Joe began digging into Schuilenberg’s credentials, and quickly became skeptical about their validity. 

Earlier this year, Schuilenberg publicly acknowledged that her 2008 master of arts in counselling psychology was from a fraudulent school in Idaho, and said she gave up her doctorate as a result. The Caribbean university where Schuilenberg says she earned her doctorate is also alleged to be a “diploma mill” that sells dubious degrees for profit.

The only graduate degree that remains on Schuilenberg’s website is a master of religious education, but she has changed the year it was completed from 2007 to 2004 and added that it is “non-traditional.”

No regulation for therapists in B.C.

As a therapist, Schuilenberg is not subject to the mandatory regulation that governs professionals like psychologists. There’s no college that sets a code of ethics therapists must follow, or that can revoke their licences when they don’t meet a defined set of standards.

Voluntary organizations like the CPCA have attempted to fill the gap, setting guidelines for members and developing processes for dealing with complaints. 

The CPCA’s disciplinary report does not elaborate on how Schuilenberg’s actions violated its ethical code, but it notes that “other irregularities” were found in her application for credentials with the group.

In an email, CPCA executive director Eva Kelades declined to provide further information, but said, “until such time as a regulatory college is formed in our province, the CPCA remains dedicated to holding our members accountable.”

The CPCA disciplinary report makes it clear that Schuilenberg can’t call herself a psychologist or a doctor, and says she must “correct all references to the number of years of their professional experience to be accurate.”

Previously, Schuilenberg’s website had advertised “30+ years of experience [in] the therapy room,” despite that fact that she earned her college diploma in counselling in 2005 — just 15 years ago.

The report says that Schuilenberg must also provide the details of the disciplinary actions to any counselling organization she belongs to. If she fails to abide by any of the measures in the report, her membership in the CPCA will be revoked.

After CBC first reported on the complaint against Schuilenberg, a former patient reached out to say that she had started seeing Schuilenberg on the understanding that she was “a doctor of psychology.”

During her time as Schuilenberg’s client, the patient gave Schuilenberg power of attorney and the ability to make legally binding decisions about her health, an arrangement she now believes was inappropriate. Schuilenberg has declined to comment on those allegations, citing patient confidentiality.

Read more at CBC.ca