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A Personal Statement, by Dr. Kim Dennis, on Safeguarding Patient Care

In recent weeks several people have reached out to me to say something about the Chicago Tribune reports of several patients being sexually abused by their therapist at Timberline Knolls.

Though I resigned from TK as CEO and Medical Director nearly four years ago and have no current affiliation with them, I understand why some are looking to me for some sort of statement. My time there, the people I worked with and the residents we helped will forever hold a special place in my heart. I spent a decade pouring my heart and soul in to creating a place where staff and patients alike could come and experience safety, compassion, healing and expert medical care. The entire SunCloud team joins Timberline Knolls in grieving and addressing the abuse that has happened in this situation and elsewhere.  In the spirit of service and being part of the solution, SunCloud will be sponsoring a series of events in the next year about the dynamics of power, sexual abuse and re-enactments specific to treatment organizations, using case examples and exploring best practices to safeguard patient care.

There aren’t really words to describe all that I feel since hearing about these allegations last Summer–sadness, shock, anger, disgust. I’m a psychiatrist, with an excellent academic pedigree as well as the personal experience of having recovered from bulimia/anorexia and alcoholism.  I’m heartbroken that a therapist abused women who had come to a treatment center to heal from abuse, heartbroken that innocent and vulnerable people are sexually assaulted anywhere, let alone there. I’m impacted by stories like these on a personal level, as a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a person who was supposed to take care of me. I have overcome my trauma in large part due to the treatment I received over the course of a decade from a loving, expert, well-boundaried male therapist. I have been a victim myself of abuse of power from a male director while at work, both as a student and later as a practicing professional. Sadly, these problems are pervasive for women in society today. Sadness goes to tragic when this particular brand of exploitation, this particular brand of evil for those who are religiously inclined, occurs at the hand of a treatment professional.

This most recently reported abuse of power, undeniably, is a loss. For anyone ever connected to Timberline Knolls, for the professionals still there who actually are committed to helping women heal, and for the vulnerable people most susceptible to abuse across the world. Most tragically, it is another deep wound, upon layers and layers of other wounds, for the women abused and their families who deserve justice, who deserve to be heard, and seen and cared for in their healing. They deserve to be commended for courageously and miraculously speaking up and taking action.  Finding power in the truth. Finding power in saying no more to silence. Saying no more to oppression. Saying no more to sexual abuse and exploitation.  These women and their families are owed a great debt.

The responsibility we have as professionals is awesome. The healing we can impart is a part of that responsibility. Our duty to first do no harm, is another part of that responsibility. My hope and prayer for the women who have spoken out is that they can somehow, some way have the courage to trust again, somehow some way have the courage to again seek help, to find comfort, safety and peace on their journeys.

It is on all of us in the professional community to build treatment settings that are healthy, safe, well-boundaried, at all levels of our organizations. We cannot do that without personal healing and personal wellness. Unhealed people hurt others.

There are multiple levels of abuse that are indelibly stitched into the fabric of so many institutions. When those institutions serve people with histories of abuse, many safeguards need to be in place in order to manage and detect re-enactments of abuse playing out between staff and patients.  It’s hard sometimes to have hope in the midst of all of these tragedies.  There are examples of systems that have been riddled for decades with this kind of abuse, that finally have been exposed by virtue of victims speaking out in recent years (i.e., the Catholic church, in government, in the entertainment industry, the treatment industry, etc.). Where do we go from here? What do we do from here? All I know is that I pray everyday to be part of the solution. My job is to be awake for it, to continue to work for it, and to believe that in some small way we can offer hope, healing and comfort to those who still suffer.  At the end of the day, all I really care about in the work is helping people in meaningful and sustainable ways.

As the CEO of SunCloud Health, I care about the abused women and men that walk through our door. Staff who work with these vulnerable populations need trauma training, ongoing supervision multiple times a week to address interactions with patients, re-enactments occurring in the milieu, with staff, between staff, and also staff wellness. As a medical professional and CEO, I’ve always keep a hand in direct care and staff supervision. It does equip me with a unique perspective–I have my boots on the ground, in the trenches with patients and staff, and I step back to direct and lead the organization from the 50,000 foot view as its CEO.   One of the qualities we value in our hiring process is staff who have done and continue to do their own healing and ongoing development, both personally and professionally. Two of our institutional values are transparency and the strength we find in community. The work of healing with patients so wounded is intense, and the resources devoted to support that work are also intense. Grueling work, at times thankless, and always at the end of the day exquisitely fulfilling to see the wounded hearts beat with life anew. These are all pieces of the solution–building safe spaces from the top down and the bottom up.

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