"Conflicting Interests?"

“Professor Felicity Goodyear-Smith is a senior academic and doctor who was commissioned by ACC to research sexual abuse counselling. She is also the daughter-in-law of Centrepoint guru and paedophile Bert Potter, is married to a convicted sex offender and has controversial views on the workings of the ‘sexual abuse industry’. Tim Hume examines allegations of Goodyear-Smith’s influence in ACC’s recent drastic cut in support for victims of sex crimes.

LAST OCTOBER, ACC changed the rules governing the support available to victims of sex crimes, introducing a heavily criticised new regime that severely restricted access to counselling.

But what most concerned critics was an apparent similarity between a requirement in the new “clinical pathway”, and a recommendation contained in research ACC had commissioned from a controversial senior academic. The research was led by Professor Felicity Goodyear-Smith, who has been a vocal detractor of the field of sexual abuse counselling and who, as the daughter-in-law of Centrepoint founder Bert Potter, has ongoing personal relationships with convicted child sex offenders.

During the eight months following the clinical pathway’s introduction, ACC paid out $7 million less to 2889 fewer claimants than it had over the same period a year previous. Approved new claims, running at 1313 in the eight months prior to the pathway’s introduction, subsequently dropped to 240 over the same length of time. Among the hundreds to have their claims denied were two women believed to have later committed suicide.

Despite a record $4.8 billion loss sustained by ACC the previous financial year, ACC Minister Nick Smith stressed the policy was not an attempt to cut costs, but was driven by a desire to implement best practice for sexual abuse victims, known as “sensitive claimants”. Critics dubbed the new pathway a “rapists’ charter”.

The scheme’s many detractors were primarily concerned by a new requirement that, before they could access ACC counselling and support, claimants had to be diagnosed formally with a mental injury as defined by the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV). Whereas previously, ACC might have accepted a GP or counsellor’s description of symptoms such as flashbacks, panic attacks or nightmares resulting from a sex crime, now a formal diagnosis of a mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder was needed.

It’s unclear exactly why. Nowhere was a DSM-IV mental illness diagnosis specified in the so-called “Massey guidelines”, the widely accepted 2008 best practice manual which ACC had commissioned from Massey University researchers, and which it cited as having guided the formulation of the pathway.

The requirement was problematic at both a practical and an ideological level. Generally, only psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are qualified to make a DSM-IV diagnosis, so those who provided the bulk of sensitive claims support – counsellors and psychotherapists – were typically no longer able to satisfy the requirements. The latter professions considered the pathway unethical for the way it retraumatised victims, requiring them to recount their abuse to external assessors, all the while enduring the stress of knowing their future treatment hung on this scrutiny. Moreover, they strongly objected to being forced to label victims of sexual assaults with a stigmatising diagnosis of mental illness, for displaying symptoms they regard as a normal response to traumatic events.

“It’s a fundamental shift,” says Auckland counsellor Barri Leslie, “because it takes away all the responsibility from the perpetrators and puts all the consequences on to the victims.”

ACC now admits it got it wrong and earlier this month announced that sexual assault victims are now automatically entitled to 16 sessions of counselling. “We moved too quick, and left a bunch of people with nowhere to go,” says ACC spokesman Laurie Edwards.

Those who need additional treatment must still undergo a DSM-IV mental injury assessment for further cover, though. This worries Leslie and others, like Kyle MacDonald, sensitive claims spokesman for the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists. More pressingly, they share concerns about the potential influence in the pathway of a piece of research, published in 2005, that ACC commissioned from Goodyear-Smith and two colleagues on the corporation’s provision of sexual abuse counselling…” (Click here for the whole article from the Sunday Star Times 29/08/10)

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