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Psychologist suspended for 20 months for failing to maintain professional boundaries

12 Feb 2024

A psychologist has been reprimanded by a tribunal for failing to maintain professional boundaries with her clients and a former employee.

The Psychology Board of Australia (the Board) referred Ms Shelah Johnston to the State Administrative Tribunal of Western Australian (the tribunal). The Board alleged that between October 2015 and July 2019, Ms Johnston failed to maintain professional boundaries by:

  1. engaging in a dual business relationship with a provisional psychologist under her employment and supervision,
  2. introducing clients to each other for purposes other than the appropriate delivery of therapeutic services,
  3. facilitating personal relationships between clients,
  4. facilitating personal relationships with clients and other people,
  5. allowing clients to provide her with personal services for her own personal benefit, and
  6. maintaining personal relationships with clients and former clients.

The Board also alleged that Ms Johnston failed to:

  1. maintain client confidentiality by disclosing private and confidential information about current and former clients,
  2. appropriately assess a client, and
  3. take and keep clear and accurate records.

In 2016, Ms Johnston ran a peer support group for about 10 months with four of her clients. She did not discuss confidentiality issues or set any boundaries with the participants, encouraged them to share contact details and was not always there when her clients met. Some support group activities included socialising at Ms Johnston’s house, as well as providing gardening and home maintenance services which she paid for. When two participants raised concerns about another participant’s behaviour, she shared confidential and private information without that client’s knowledge or consent. Throughout the time the support group ran, Ms Johnston did not keep proper records of the group’s activities, making continuity of care by another psychologist impossible.

Several of the Board’s allegations involve Client W, a participant in the peer support group. In 2016, Ms Johnston wrote a report for Client W’s employer, stating she had post-traumatic stress and could not predict when Client W could return to work, resulting in her being retired on medical grounds. Ms Johnston did not carry out a full diagnostic assessment of Client W, or the nature and cause of her symptoms before writing the report. She also never documented or told Client W’s doctor that Client W was providing her with gardening and cleaning services.

While still in private practice, Ms Johnston also facilitated a relationship between Client W and another client. The relationship became sexual and lasted for about six months. After her private practice closed, she facilitated a second relationship between Client W and a friend. This relationship also became sexual and lasted about 10 months.

When Ms Johnston closed her private practice in January 2017, she went on to develop a friendship with Client W in which they talked about intimate relationships, health issues and travel plans. The two also met up on an overseas holiday.

In 2018, Ms Johnston wrote another medical report for Client W for a disability support pension appeal which included disorders outside of her initial diagnosis in 2016. She did not carry out an examination, and had not seen Client W in a professional capacity for more than 16 months.

Ms Johnston’s Airbnb business was another area where she crossed professional boundaries with both an employee and a client.

From December 2016 to January 2017, Ms Johnston employed and supervised a provisional psychologist in her private practice. At the same time, she was paying her employee to host her house on Airbnb. In 2019, Ms Johnston then asked Client W to manage the listing. Client W lived in Ms Johnston’s house for three months and managed the Airbnb listing while she was overseas. Client W was not paid for any of the services she delivered as an Airbnb host except for picking up guests from the airport.

The Board referred Ms Johnston to the tribunal alleging nine instances of professional misconduct spanning nearly four years, involving five of her clients and an employee.

In December 2023, the tribunal found that Ms Johnston had engaged in professional misconduct and ordered that she:

  • be reprimanded
  • have her registration suspended for 20 months
  • have supervision and education conditions imposed upon her return to practise and that she may only work in places of practice approved by the Board, and
  • pay $9,000 of the Board’s costs.

Ms Johnston submitted that she had practised psychology for 35 years without complaint and that there had not been any repetition of the alleged conduct since. She has not practised privately since 2017, her current employer is satisfied with her conduct, she works under supervision of the principal clinical psychologist and attends regular professional development.

Read the tribunal’s full decision on the eCourts Portal of Western Australia.

Page reviewed 12/02/2024