A therapist in Yarmouth, N.S., who was recently accused of sexually assaulting one of his patients, was able to continue practicing after he was charged with another sexual assault two years ago.
Dominic Jacob Deveau, 46, was arrested on May 14 after a patient alleged she had been sexually assaulted by her therapist in December 2020.
He was charged with sexual assault and released on a number of conditions, including that he does not provide professional counselling or therapeutic services.
But that wasn’t one of his conditions when he was first arrested and charged with sexual assault in April 2019 after a woman reported he assaulted her while on a drive. That meant there was nothing stopping him from continuing to practice.
A week after he was arrested for the most recent sexual assault charge, Deveau was charged for allegedly breaching that condition.
“We were notified that he was continuing his practice, which led to the charge,” said RCMP spokesperson Lisa Croteau.
The allegations have not been tested in court and Deveau’s lawyer, Phil Star, declined to comment further on the case.
“My client also does not wish to be interviewed as per my advice to him,” he said in an email.
For a licensed therapist, being charged with a crime can lead to their licence being suspended — but people don’t actually need to be licensed in the first place to operate a counselling or therapy service.
Act of counselling ‘difficult to define’
Deveau’s professional website has been taken down, but an archived version from February 2020 said he had “extensive experience with clients over the years who have suffered extreme to minor trauma, addictions, mood disorders, marital issues, and more.”
The website also said he was a Canadian certified counsellor (CCC) and a professional member of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, though that doesn’t act as a regulatory or licensure body in Nova Scotia.
John Hubert, the executive director and registrar of the Nova Scotia College of Counselling Therapists, said while counselling therapists do have title protection – which means you need to be licensed to advertise yourself as a “counselling therapist” or “registered counselling therapist” – the act of counselling therapy itself isn’t protected.
It’s the same case for psychology — people can’t call themselves a “psychologist” or advertise “psychology” services unless they are registered with the Nova Scotia Board of Examiners in Psychology. But singular terms like “counsellor,” “therapist,” and “psychotherapist” are not licensed titles.
“We don’t have the prohibition on the practice of the things that go into counselling … You just can’t call yourself certain things while you’re doing it,” said Hubert in an interview. “And so it does open itself up to abuse, for sure.”
Hubert noted there is “good historical reason” for this. For instance, people like social workers and nurses can provide forms of therapy to people, even though they’re not registered therapists.
“So, it’s difficult to define exclusively what the act of counselling therapy would be because it overlaps with so many other legitimate scopes of practice with other health professions,” Hubert explained.
But in those cases, health professionals would be regulated in some other capacity, and, more importantly, the public would have access to a complaints process.
For anyone else, there isn’t much oversight, said Hubert.
In Deveau’s case, he was licensed by the college in 2017 as a registered counselling therapist candidate, a supervised role similar to an internship or residency. His candidacy lapsed at the end of March 2019 and he was no longer authorized by the college to practice.
On May 5 of this year, Hubert said the college was made aware of allegations that Deveau’s website improperly listed his “counselling therapy” services, even though it’s a protected title. That prompted the college to issue a public notification about Deveau on its website.
Hubert noted the importance of trust in a therapist-client relationship and said these kinds of situations can be “incredibly damaging.”
“It’s a very intimate relationship. I mean, when you’re in front of a counsellor, you’re telling very intimate details about your life, typically problems with a lot of emotional content,” he said, adding that while the college does encourage people to research the professionals they’re seeing, there is some public confusion over what regulations they are subject to.
“It adds a layer of vulnerability to the already vulnerable,” said Hubert.
When it comes to unlicensed therapists, there isn’t much oversight from the province, either.
In an email, provincial spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said the province does not play a role in the provision of unregulated or unlicensed services.
“We encourage Nova Scotians to do their research when seeking counselling services and use licensed, regulated practitioners,” Fairbairn wrote.
But that advice isn’t especially easy to follow in a small town like Yarmouth – with a population of around 7,000 – where mental health resources are “extremely limited,” said Trish McCourt, the executive director of the Tri County Women’s Centre.
The centre, which operates out of Yarmouth, Digby, and Shelburne, offers services and programming related to community services, housing, food security, and counselling.
They have a therapist who works specifically with survivors of sexual assault, but she has “a waitlist equivalent to her workload,” said McCourt.
She said accessing private mental healthcare services in the region is also a challenge.
“But the resources aren’t in the community. We don’t have the capacity to hire someone with the appropriate credentials to deal with those kinds of needs, because the funding’s not available to community organizations to do that work.”
Because of that, many people requiring mental health services don’t have the luxury to shop around, said McCourt.
She said she felt “alarm” and “a real frustration with the system” when she found out Deveau was allowed to continue to practice therapy after his 2019 sexual assault allegation.
“I believe very strongly in the court process and that people be given their due process and not be necessarily treated as a criminal before they’ve gone through the entire court process and been convicted,” she said.
“But there are different types of crimes and some crimes put people at much greater risk than others.”
McCourt believes more oversight is needed in the industry and there should be better access to public mental health-care services in the region.
She added that in a small community like Yarmouth, a situation like this can have wide-reaching impacts.
“Even the simple fact that I’m much less likely to send someone to a private practice therapist, because the risk is higher, is having an impact on other people’s livelihood and access to services,” she said.
In the release announcing Deveau’s arrest this month, the RCMP said they believe there may be more victims and asked anyone with more information to contact the police.
Deveau is scheduled to make an appearance in Yarmouth Provincial Court on July 19 at 9:30 a.m., where he is expected to enter an election and/or plea for the charges.