British Columbia

Lack of regulation means B.C. therapist can treat patients despite sexual misconduct complaint

For the last two and and a half years, a former B.C. man has been searching for someone with the power to handle his complaint about alleged sexual misconduct by a Vancouver-area psychotherapist.

Xander Phoenix allegedly had sexual relationship with patient at B.C. clinic

Xander Phoenix looks straight at the camera. He is a white man with black balding hair and a thick stubble, wearing a yellow shirt. A sign behind him reads 'The Phoenix Centre'.
Xander Phoenix, who gave up his application for a psychology licence in B.C., says he is no longer seeing patients in this province. (The Phoenix Centre)

For the last two and and a half years, a former B.C. man has been searching for someone with the power to handle his complaint about alleged sexual misconduct by a Vancouver-area psychotherapist.

In the spring of 2019, the father of two said he found a series of text messages on his then-wife's phone between her and Xander Phoenix, a therapist she'd seen while seeking help for depression. 

The messages, which have been shared with CBC, were flirty and sexual. They called each other "sexy,"  reminisced about kissing each other, and made plans to meet up in a hotel room or Airbnb. There was also a half-naked image of Phoenix in a bathroom, as well as scantily clad photos of the wife.

The discovery of the messages and photos set off a quest for action from regulators and professional associations here in B.C. and as far afield as Virginia and Florida.

Police are also investigating.

Despite all those efforts, Phoenix still operates his own clinic in Burnaby.

CBC is not naming the ex-husband in order to protect the identity of his ex-wife as an alleged victim of sexual misconduct.

"I've got no other place to go with this," he told CBC News. "I'm pleading that something can be done about this guy."

Sex with patients is considered to be a major ethical violation and an abuse of power for therapists, and it's explicitly forbidden by regulators and professional organizations across the country.

But psychotherapy and counselling aren't regulated professions in B.C. Literally anyone can call themselves a therapist and start offering their services to patients seeking help with serious mental health issues.

Though Phoenix lost his job in Vancouver as a result of the text messages and is no longer a candidate for a psychology licence in B.C., there is nothing stopping him from working as a therapist.

The ex-wife said she knew from the beginning that there was something wrong with the relationship, but she pushed those thoughts away.

"I refused to see it," she said. "I didn't focus on that … because then I would be this victim."

'I do not have sex with my patients'

Phoenix doesn't deny having a sexual relationship with her, but claimed that because she saw him for an intake visit before she began seeing other therapists at Vancouver's Swingle Clinic, they were not in a therapeutic relationship.

"I do not have sex with my patients," Phoenix said, alleging he was the victim of a "smear campaign" and that he was being harassed by the ex-husband. 

"All I'm doing is trying to help people, and that dude has been a pain in my ass, sorry for the expression, for two and a half years," he said.

Phoenix also claimed that the sexual relationship began after he'd stopped working at the Swingle Clinic.

Emails shared with CBC show a different timeline of events. 

Swingle Clinic management received screenshots of the text messages and images in April 2019, when Phoenix was still employed there, and he was immediately suspended for what appeared to be "a severe breach of proper ethical conduct," according to an email from the clinic's operations manager and vice president.

Phoenix was immediately suspended from his job at a Vancouver psychology clinic after sexual text messages were discovered on the phone of a patient. (Jacy Schindel/CBC)

Management told CBC that Phoenix resigned on April 22, 2019.

"The clinic understood that his resignation was in response to a verified complaint from a client regarding a violation of the code of ethics of the College of Psychologists of British Columbia … of which he was an applicant at the time. The clinic further understood that his resignation was an act pre-empting his imminent dismissal at an in-person meeting scheduled the same evening," the Swingle Clinic said in a written statement.

Phoenix has since withdrawn his application for registration with the college, essentially putting that investigation on hold, according to letters from the college's deputy registrar to the former husband and wife. In September, the college posted a public notice about Phoenix, making it clear he has never been registered here.

Phoenix said he withdrew his application for licensing in B.C. "because after four and a half years of being jerked around, I just decided it was time for me to stop."

U.S. board was ready to take action

He was, however, registered as a psychologist in Virginia, so the ex-husband filed a complaint with that state's licensing board.

An investigation by the Virginia Board of Psychology uncovered enough evidence that a disciplinary conference was scheduled.

A statement of allegations provided to CBC by the Virginia licensing body said the board alleged Phoenix had "engaged in a romantic sexual relationship with a patient," citing the text messages as evidence.

But a date for the conference was pushed back twice, according to emails shared with CBC, and then Phoenix let his licence expire this summer. 

As a result, according to an Aug. 6 letter from the board to Phoenix, "the case has been closed as undetermined," but it will be reopened if he applies for licence renewal.

Phoenix doesn't deny the sexual relationship but argues he didn't breach professional ethics. (DedMityay/Shutterstock)

Phoenix said he let his Virginia licence lapse not because of the potential for discipline, but because it no longer made sense to be registered there.

He now holds a psychology licence in Florida. The ex-wife has filed a complaint with that state's licensing body, but received a reply in November informing her that the Florida Department of Health has "no authority in this matter and can take no action."

Phoenix said he obtained a Florida licence because he does work with veterans there.

A complaint was also filed with the B.C. Association of Clinical Counsellors, where Phoenix was a member at the time. The association can investigate complaints, but because it isn't a regulator, those investigations are automatically ended if someone cancels their membership.

The association confirmed to CBC that Phoenix is no longer a member.

Finally, the ex-wife filed a report with Vancouver police on Oct. 25. The police department confirmed it is an open and active investigation.

Calls for regulation

Both the ex-husband and ex-wife say they can't understand why therapy and counselling aren't regulated in B.C.

"These therapists, these clinical counsellors, these life coaches — whatever they want to call themselves — they need to be able to answer to a regulatory body," the ex-husband said.

Health Minister Adrian Dix has said that regulating counsellors and therapists is a top priority for the province, but it will have to wait until after a massive overhaul of the system for regulating all health professionals is complete.

Dix declined an interview request on the Phoenix case and a statement from the health ministry provided no updates on when counselling and therapy will be regulated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a journalist for CBC News in Vancouver 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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