British Columbia

Therapist's 3 'possibly fraudulent' degrees lead to questions about B.C.'s failure to regulate

A B.C. psychotherapist is facing a complaint that she boasted of three "possibly fraudulent" graduate degrees, but because her profession isn't regulated, it's not clear what the potential consequences might be.

Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg of Kelowna removed a master's and doctorate from her website after complaint filed

Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg is a psychotherapist in Kelowna. Until recently, she described herself as a 'doctor of psychology.' (William & Associates Counselling Services)

A B.C. psychotherapist is facing a complaint that she boasted of three "possibly fraudulent" graduate degrees, but because her profession isn't regulated, it's not clear what the potential consequences might be.

Until recently, Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg of Kelowna called herself a "doctor of psychology" online, used the honorific "Dr." and advertised that she'd earned two master's degrees and a doctorate in the space of just four years. Yet, she also told a local news outlet that she didn't have a high school diploma.

Sharon Pham, a counselling psychology professor at Providence Theological Seminary in Manitoba, started questioning those qualifications when one of her students was completing a practicum under Schuilenberg's supervision.

"She looked good on the surface, but when you actually dig a little bit deeper, it unravelled," said Pham, who is a registered psychologist in Alberta.

Pham says she became suspicious after Schuilenberg allegedly instructed her student to continue seeing patients face-to-face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Pham looked into the institutions where Schuilenberg had earned her three degrees, those also looked suspicious — and potentially bogus.

Pham pulled her student from Schuilenberg's supervision, then tried to figure out where she could file a complaint.

"I felt like this was grievous enough that she should be held accountable," Pham said.

But psychological counsellors and therapists aren't regulated in B.C. There's no college that determines which qualifications are necessary to provide therapy for vulnerable patients or that can revoke practitioners' licences when they don't meet a defined set of standards.

"You have all of these people in B.C. that are putting out shingles calling themselves counsellors and they have absolutely no accountability to anybody at all," Pham said.

Glen Grigg, a clinical counsellor in Vancouver and chair of the Federation of Associations for Counselling Therapists in B.C., has been pushing for regulation of counselling and therapy for 25 years.

He said this isn't an isolated situation, and it's a direct result of failing to create a professional college that would set a standard for acceptable credentials.

"What's going on is wrong. It's shameful. It's got to stop. It takes political will to do that, and I've been a persistent failure in generating that political will. But it doesn't mean that I've given up," Grigg said.

Regulation 'more complicated than it should be'

Pham tried filing a complaint against Schuilenberg with the College of Psychologists of B.C., but learned that "doctor of psychology" isn't a protected title.

College registrar Andrea Kowaz told CBC in an email that she "appreciates the regulation of titles may at times be more complicated than it should be ideally," but the college has no power here.

And so on April 15, Pham filed a complaint against Schuilenberg with the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association (CPCA), a voluntary organization. Schuilenberg has served in the past as the group's national registrar and chair of its ethics committee.

CBC is not aware of any complaints from patients about the care they received from Schuilenberg.

The harshest punishment available to a group like the CPCA is revoking someone's membership, which has no effect on their ability to continue practising.

Pham's complaint alleges Schuilenberg's graduate degrees "are not credible and possibly fraudulent." 

It also claims Schuilenberg instructed Pham's student to violate Providence's directive against seeing clients in person during the pandemic.

Pham writes that she believes Schuilenberg's "behaviour breaches numerous principles within CPCA's Code of Ethics."

In the time since Pham's complaint was filed, Schuilenberg has removed the doctorate and one master's degree from the list of qualifications on her clinic website and revised the details of the remaining master's.

An image on the homepage of the International University of Graduate Studies shows Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg with the chancellor. Schuilenberg now says she has resigned her doctorate from the school. (iugrad.edu.dm)

She no longer calls herself "Dr." and in a notice to the public dated June 9, she explains that she gave up her doctor of psychology degree after learning that her 2008 master of arts in counselling psychology was fraudulent.

"I evidently did not do a thorough enough vetting of the college's status 13 years ago and I am personally and professionally devastated," Schuilenberg writes.

In response to a detailed list of questions about the allegations against her, Schuilenberg told CBC, "I am unable to comment at this time. This is an ongoing investigation and the complaint is yet unresolved."

In an email, the CPCA's executive director Eva Kelades said the association takes all complaints "extremely seriously" and promised that when the investigation into Schuilenberg is complete, the results will be made public.

Kelades said that while the investigation is underway, she could not comment further.

'Those are red flags'

Pham's complaint is based on a deep dive that she conducted with some help from her husband Joe, a dentist who lives in Oregon.

He explained that he became suspicious because of the alphabet soup of credentials that Schuilenberg lists after her name.

"When you start to see professionals that put down tons of degrees and tons of letters, those are red flags," Joe Pham said.

The website for Schuilenberg's clinic didn't list the institutions where she'd earned her qualifications.

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

But according to her CV, which was available online until recently, she received a master of religious education from Calvary Baptist Bible College in 2007, a master of arts from Canyon College in 2008 and a doctor of psychology from the International University for Graduate Studies (IUGS) in 2010.

Calvary Baptist Bible College appears to have been an Oklahoma school that is no longer open.

The Phams discovered that Canyon College was an online institution based in Idaho, but it closed in 2014 after the state's board of education filed a legal action alleging the school had taken tuition in exchange for "degrees that were not authorized," according to a report from the Idaho Press.

IUGS, meanwhile, is accredited by the small Caribbean island nation of Dominica. 

The Phams dug up a 2004 investigation by The Chronicle of Higher Education that alleges IUGS is a "diploma mill" that sells dubious degrees for profit, as well as an investigation by a local political blogger that claims the addresses given for the school's campus are actually home to a lawyer's office and a mango tree standing in an empty lot.

A representative of IUGS's admissions office did not respond to CBC's questions about those allegations.

Today, the only graduate degree that remains on Schuilenberg's website is the master of religious education, but the date has been changed from 2007 to 2004 and a qualification has been added to say it is "non-traditional."

She also lists two one-year diplomas, both obtained from the Kelowna College of Professional Counselling, a small private institution.

Worries about harm to patients

For Pham, this is evidence of a much bigger problem.

After she removed her student from Schuilenberg's supervision, she began searching for another psychotherapist in the Kelowna area who could take over her student's practicum.

"It didn't take me very long before I found another one with really questionable credentials," she said.

Like Grigg, Pham believes the only solution is bringing in some form of regulation for the profession to ensure the appropriate training and accountability. Without regulation, she worries about what could happen to British Columbians seeking help.

"When they go to see a counsellor, they're at their most vulnerable, and the risk is that they're going to leave worse than when they entered," Pham said.

Last year, the B.C. government introduced a sweeping proposal for reforming the system for regulating health professionals. Health Minister Adrian Dix has said regulating counsellors and therapists will be a priority once a new system is in place.

Asked for an update this week, a spokesperson for the health ministry said consultation on the proposal is ongoing.

 

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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