CANTON — St. Lawrence County Attorney Stephen D. Button spoke during the county’s Operations Committee meeting Monday night about the recent controversy surrounding Thomas E. Doyle, a man who testified in Family Court to being a licensed psychologist despite not being one.
During the meeting, Mr. Button said that during a March 15 Family Court proceeding, Mr. Doyle testified that he was a psychologist, despite not being licensed, but that the court allowed him to proceed with his testimony because he was considered a fact witness, not an expert witness.
“That was incorrect,” Mr. Button clarified over the phone Tuesday. “He was utilized as an expert in that proceeding.”
Mr. Button told the committee that around 16 years ago, the Department of Social Services began using Mr. Doyle to perform evaluations that would have determined what type of treatment course might be appropriate for a patient.
“Doyle is a licensed mental health counselor, and can give evaluations and testify on those evaluations,” Mr. Button said. “While it is problematic that an individual would hold themselves out as a licensed psychologist and not be a psychologist, the question I have to answer is whether the work he performed was within the scope of the licensure he had.”
“From the files I’ve reviewed at this point,” he said, “it does not appear he performed any function on behalf of St. Lawrence County that would constitute work outside of that which could be performed by a licensed mental health counselor.”
During his March 15 testimony, Mr. Doyle claimed to have been a licensed psychologist in New York state since 2006.
“Yeah, that was a mistake,” Mr. Doyle said Saturday at his Rensselaer Falls home.
He confirmed that he is not, nor has he ever been, a licensed psychologist.
He said he testifies before the court as an expert psychological witness about five or six times a year, and that he’s conducted “well over a thousand” psychological evaluations for Family Court and the Department of Social Services since 2012.
Mr. Doyle also said that mental health counseling and psychology are “very interchangeable.”
Mr. Button said he’s “pleasantly surprised” at the limited involvement Mr. Doyle has had with the county’s files, and how this involvement, at least upon a surface review, seems to remain within the confines of his licensed mental health counselor capacity.
Despite this, Mr. Button said the matter has been referred to the District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua’s office for further investigation.
“The county is frustrated and disappointed in the matter and would like to see resolution, but I can’t say at this point whether this rises to a criminal matter,” Mr. Button said.
He said Tuesday via phone that Mr. Doyle has been involved in 10 cases in the last year.
Mr. Button told the committee it’s “theoretically possible” that Mr. Doyle, posing as a psychologist in court, played a role in a judge’s decision affecting parental rights.
“But in my review so far, I’ve seen nothing to indicate his testimony was the determining factor,” he said.
Over the phone Tuesday, Mr. Button said that within the last five years, Mr. Doyle has only provided evaluation, not treatment.
“His objective was to determine what services an individual needed, not to provide those services,” he said.
However, Mr. Button said Mr. Doyle has provided treatment in the past.
“As for this not affecting parents’ rights, it certainly affects parents’ rights in that Doyle is making recommendations for these parents, and he is diagnosing these parents per some of the reports I’ve seen,” said Courtney A. Fantone, founder and director of Community Helping Individuals Living in Distress (CHILD), an advocacy organization that reviews DSS foster care cases. “When Doyle testifies that a parent should be doing ‘XYZ,’ and he’s not qualified to be doing so, the judge puts a lot of power into what he’s saying.”
She said it “doesn’t make sense at all” that his testimony wouldn’t affect the outcome of court decisions.
“Why bring him in as an expert witness if not to sway the judge?” she said.
On her organization’s Facebook page, she invites anyone who’s ever had an assessment done by Mr. Doyle to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I don’t know what justice looks like,” she said. “I sit here and try to fathom what we could do to rectify this situation for families, but I don’t know what that looks like at this point.”
She said she is working on filing complaints this week with disciplinary boards right up to the FBI.
During the meeting, County Administrator Ruth A. Doyle noted that, since 2011, the county has paid Mr. Doyle a total of $3,497.50.
“Considering what we spend on services, this is not an extraordinary amount,” she said.
DSS Commissioner Joseph L. Seeber, who started in early April, said he welcomes scrutiny of the department, adding “we are going to be as transparent as possible.”
“We really haven’t used Mr. Doyle that much over the years,” he said, “but even if there was one case where he caused harm, I want to know about it.”
Moving forward, he said DSS will verify licensures for those conducting expert evaluations.
“I just want the public to know that we take this seriously, and it will be handled the right way,” Mr. Seeber said.