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County to Pay Divorced Couple $75,000 : Twin Lawsuits Over Alcohol Counselor’s Conduct Are Settled

Times Staff Writer

A divorced Costa Mesa couple have settled separate lawsuits against Orange County over claims that a county alcohol-abuse counselor abandoned the husband’s drinking problem and started a sexual affair with the non-drinking wife.

The county has agreed to pay $50,000 to Karin Petersen and $25,000 to Peter Petersen, said John Oskins, the county’s claimsmanager.

The couple had been married 21 years when Peter Petersen, who had a severe drinking problem, sought counseling in 1976 from Orange County’s Alcohol Services, said his lawyer, Joseph E. Sullivan of Santa Ana.

Karin Petersen, who had wanted to save her marriage, had been going to AlAnon meetings. The group, begun by Alcoholics Anonymous, tries to help people whose lives are affected by someone else’s drinking, said her lawyer, Carrie MacMillin of Newport Beach.

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According to the Petersens’ lawyers and court documents, Peter Petersen, now 53, went to the county for help and was referred to James E. Preston, who worked in the Alcohol Services office in Westminster at the time.

Wife Asked to Participate

After several counseling sessions, Preston asked that Karin Petersen, now 48, also come in for counseling, which Sullivan said was part of a proper effort at family counseling.

After one or two meetings with Karin Petersen, Preston dropped her husband as a client and suggested to her that “sex with him (Preston) would benefit her treatment,” the couple’s lawsuits claim.

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Suspecting a tryst, Peter Petersen complained immediately, and the county removed Preston from the Petersens’ case, Sullivan said. Preston and Karin Petersen nonetheless resumed the relationship and continued it until 1982, according to the Petersens’ lawyers.

The Petersens’ lawyers charged that Preston had had no training and little educational background in counseling at the time and that the county had failed to train him or supervise his activities. Preston acknowledged in a recent interview that he has since obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social work.

Preston and the county denied, in court documents and in the settlements, that either had done anything improper. Peter Petersen agreed to the settlement terms on May 3, and Karin Petersen accepted settlement of her suit on May 8.

Preston, who said he was “totally upset” over the legal proceedings, denied allegations that he had used his counseling position to obtain sexual favors. He would not comment further.

Still Living Together

Though divorced, the Petersens live together as friends in Costa Mesa, their lawyers said. After extensive rehabilitation in his native Germany, Peter Petersen returned to the United States and, except for one episode with alcohol four years ago, has remained dry, Sullivan said.

“Peter was the one who was sick, but Preston apparently became a marriage counselor and wanted to continue treating Karin, who didn’t have any alcohol problem,” Peter Petersen’s lawyer said.

“If they had had a good counselor, they would have worked things out,” MacMillin said. “Now, it’s too late. This is something she’ll never recover from. She’s in therapy every week now and probably will be in it a lifetime.”

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