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Danger is in the back of therapists’ minds

Times Staff Writer

Since a psychologist was hacked to death in her Upper East Side office last month allegedly by a mentally unstable man wielding a meat cleaver, therapists across this city have been reevaluating safety practices as they confront risks inherent in their profession.

“Anybody who goes into this business knows there is a possibility that something could happen,” said Debra E. Pearl, a New York City therapist for more than 30 years, who sees patients in her doorman-secured office building. She will make exceptions, doing consultations at her home if it is an emergency and as long as she knows the client well.

But Pearl said she knew there were uncontrollable risks: “People can flip.”

In this city, evening therapy sessions are almost as common as hitting the gym or happy hour. As details emerge about the gruesome killing of Kathryn Faughey, 56, a psychologist slain the night of Feb. 12, the dangerous reality of the job has caused concern among some mental health professionals, as well as their patients.

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Most therapists try to work with clients for years, getting to know them through weekly sessions, said Ravil Raj Sharms, a Manhattan-based psychologist. Over time, he said, it becomes easier to read and treat their mood swings. “But it is different if you worked with a person years ago and they came back with some kind of vendetta against you,” he added. “You can’t gauge that at all.”

Police said Faughey was killed when David Tarloff, 39, who had a history of schizophrenia and was not taking his prescribed medications, entered her office looking for her colleague, psychiatrist Kent Shinbach.

Tarloff was arrested two days after Faughey’s death. Investigators said they matched his palm prints with those at her bloodstained office.

Authorities said Tarloff told them he wanted to rob Shinbach, who shared office space with Faughey, to get back at him for helping commit him to a mental hospital 17 years ago. Police said Tarloff ran into Faughey instead, hacking her in the head and chest. When Shinbach heard Faughey’s screams and rushed to help, police said, Tarloff attacked him too.

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After two psychiatric experts examined Tarloff, a judge declared him mentally competent to stand trial in Faughey’s death. Tarloff faces charges of first-degree murder and the possibility of serving a life sentence with no parole. He is also charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault and attempted robbery in the attack on Shinbach.

“This is a very unusual situation and it has shaken a lot of people up,” said Richard H. Wexler, president of the New York State Psychological Assn., which has been offering free therapy and support groups for friends or family of Faughey, as well as for professionals who need to talk about her death. “Remember that every psychologist is a human being first.”

There are more than 9,000 licensed psychologists in New York state, and Wexler’s association has more than 3,000 members. He said the organization had launched an emergency task force to deal with safety issues after the recent attack, one of a handful of therapist killings across the nation in recent years.

In 2006, a schizophrenia specialist was beaten to death by a 19-year-old patient during an emergency session in Bethesda, Md. In August, a Nebraska psychiatrist died after a patient attacked him as he arrived at a medical center. On Feb. 6, a therapist was allegedly stabbed to death in North Andover, Mass., by a client during a house call.

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Many New York therapists say being cautious is part of their daily practice. They know it can be a dangerous job, but it is a risk they take because of their commitment to the people they want to help.

“The rewards of being able to help those in need far outweighs the concerns,” said Wexler, who added that the average income for a psychologist was about $60,000 a year. “They do this for the love of the profession.”

Some therapists see patients in office buildings or as part of larger practices while others invite clients into their homes for private practice. They see clients facing a range of issues; most do not have a history of violence.

But in recent weeks, some have considered installing panic buttons in their private offices to alert authorities if they find themselves in danger.

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Others say they are carefully screening new patients and trusting their instincts as to whether someone could pose a threat.

Sharms, who works in private practice, favors the idea of setting up a panic-button system, which he said large-scale practices often established. He said female colleagues had talked of sitting near doors during patient meetings in the event a threatening situation should arise. Sharms said he was confident that he could read his patients’ personalities to assess whether they were becoming volatile, and while training to become a therapist he learned martial arts moves in case he ever needed to defend himself.

Pearl said she was always careful, and although she did not feel threatened by the 30 to 35 patients she saw each week, she was mindful of risks.

She remembered counseling a man who was telling her a story about a time in his life in which he had become violent. “As he was telling me, he started getting more and more agitated,” Pearl said. “He stood up. I was in a small office, and what I said wasn’t therapeutic. I said, ‘You’re scaring me.’ ”

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Her response startled the patient, Pearl recalled, and he relaxed. She will never forget the fear she felt in that moment, but said she did not let the possibility of danger consume her thoughts.

“There are all kinds of things to be afraid of in life,” she said, adding she chooses not to be. “I don’t want to live my life that way.”

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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