Man blackmailed, exploited after affair with his psychologist

“Ms Popovski had created a climate of dependency between herself and [the patient] which was fundamental to his exploitation and the vulnerable position he was placed vis a vis his wife, her knowledge of the affair and her use of it to blackmail the patient to obtain a financial advantage thereby,” said Dr Christopher Lennings, a clinical and forensics psychologist.

Dr Lennings went on to say the intimate relationship “paralleled the same forces of destruction that concerned the client in therapy and was fundamental to his drinking problem”.

The patient, who displayed symptoms of anxiety and depression, had 12 consultations with Ms Popovski between October 2009 and April 2010.

Ms Popovski was first reported to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency in August 2015 by an unidentified person, the tribunal heard.

The person alleged Ms Popovski began an intimate relationship with the patient in or around June 2010, before or just after his treatment ceased.

The patient spoke of the relationship to a new psychologist who later gave evidence that the client was “somewhat traumatised” by it.

The tribunal found that Ms Popovski “consistently and methodically lie[d] about her conduct until contrary evidence was overwhelming”.

In responses seen by the tribunal from 2015, 2016 and 2017, Ms Popovski denied she had ever had an intimate relationship with the patient.

In October 2015, she told regulators that after the man ceased being her patient she would “see him around by chance” in the small town where they lived.

In this early telling of events, Ms Popovski said after a number of chance meetings a friendship developed.

“He would sometimes drop by at the cafe where she tended to take work lunch breaks, might drop in to her house if he happened to drive by and see her car in the driveway and they would occasionally chat on the phone,” the tribunal heard.

But a year later, in 2016, she claimed what she previously referred to as a ‘friendship’ was comprised of a series of chance meetings, and that on one occasion the patient came into her home.

She denied she ever called him for social purposes and claimed a social gathering he attended with her and another psychologist was only because “she had bumped into him in the town and when she said she was meeting a friend in another town he asked if he could go there with her”.

In July 2018, nearly three years after the initial reports to the regulator, Ms Popovski finally confessed to the intimate relationship.

The tribunal heard Ms Popovski only recanted her previous denials after she read the patient’s witness statement and “realised she had to ‘confront the truth’”.

“The statement makes clear the significant detrimental impact the relationship has had on him, with, on his account, the relationship clearly flowing from the psychologist/patient relationship,” tribunal documents state.

The tribunal heard Ms Popovski closed her practice in January 2016 and in February 2016 wrote to the regulator advising she had decided to retire from psychology practice “due to family matters”.

Dr Lennings gave expert advice to the tribunal on the allegations about Ms Popovski’s conduct before she confessed to them.

He found the behaviour amounted to “severe boundary violations”, brought major discredit to the profession and that Ms Popovski’s denial and deliberate misleading of regulators demonstrated a “complete lack of insight into such violations”.

“Ms Popovski’s lack of candour, reluctance to accept responsibility for her behaviour, and the recklessness with which she conducted an affair with a vulnerable man creates quite a different context to my understanding of the matter,” he told the tribunal.

“She is an experienced clinician, there is no way that she did not know that her behaviour … was seriously wrong”.

“She has not appeared before us at the VCAT hearing leaves us unable to assess her insight and remorse,” the tribunal stated.

The Australian Psychological Society code of ethics prohibits psychologists from having sex with a former patient for at least two years after the professional relationship has ended.

Even then, it must be discussed with a senior psychologist.

Ms Popovski was disqualified from registration as a psychologist for three years.

The VCAT decision is the second in a month in which a Victorian psychologist was reprimanded for a sexual relationship with a client.

In a verdict published in January, former Mt Eliza psychologist David Griersmith was handed a three-month disqualification from registration for a sexual relationship with a female client who was being treated for addiction, anxiety and depression.

Rachael Dexter is a journalist & audio video producer at The Age.

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