By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Then something strange happened.
People began complaining to the board about Parham. Bizarre allegations were leveled: Parham allegedly "stuck his buttocks" at a female client and said, "Spank me"; he visited a white juvenile female client late at night at Charter Hospital; he reputedly threatened a client's husband with a band of armed thugs at a McDonald's restaurant; he is said to have yelled an obscenity at the husband of a client during a custody dispute; and he was alleged to have been involved in "dual relationships" with juvenile clients whom he counseled and also "hired" at his office.
Parham contended then and still contends today that the complaints are frivolous and generated by professionals who wanted to discredit him for a number of self-serving reasons. He says the "armed thugs" at McDonald's were his two unarmed brothers, who had accompanied him to a rough part of town late at night. He says several complaints were generated by lawyers whose clients were losers in child-custody disputes he had participated in. Other complaints, he says, were filed by the fiancee of a man in prison who was angered by Parham's role in a custody dispute.
In all, 13 complaints have been filed against Parham since 1993. Five have been dismissed. The remaining eight have yet to be adjudicated. And because neither Parham nor board members will comment in detail on the complaints, it is all but impossible to judge their merits until they are adjudicated in an open meeting.
Rather than adjudicate the complaints, the state psychologists board, voicing concern about the bizarre nature of the allegations, has chosen to indefinitely suspend Parham's license. The board also ordered him to submit to and pay for a set of medical and psychological tests.
Following the tests, the board decided that Parham's suspension should be indefinitely continued.
Then the board ordered more tests.
One Scottsdale psychologist--John Beck, the first who tested Parham--produced test results that indicated Parham was practically nonfunctional; several other experts said Parham was "slow" but might be able to handle his routine practice. The final conclusion: Parham suffered from a strange form of brain damage that did not seem to be progressive and had no explicable cause. Parham's lawyer suggests he may have suffered the mysterious brain damage in a car accident several years ago.
After the testing was completed and analyzed in late 1995, one board member suggested that Parham surrender his license in exchange for the board's dismissal of all of the complaints. It is the only humane thing to do, the board member said.
Parham's only vocal supporter on the board, an African-American psychologist named Wil Counts, seemed astonished. Perhaps Parham could practice under the watchful eye of another professional, he suggested.
"Why rush to judgment? Maybe the man can practice," Counts said. "We don't know. We don't know if the complaints are valid."
Then, just before the meeting closed, Counts brought up another concern--racism. "I tried to say this before and I was hushed up, but I want to say this for the record," Counts said.
"In our society, racism does occur. And it doesn't avoid complaints [to the state board]. . . . When you look at eight complaints like it's such a tremendous issue, as a minority member of this society you always wonder and try to understand what part of the complaint was driven by racism."
Parham declined to surrender his license.
"I have been out here in this world practicing as a psychologist for a long time," he said.
"I plan to practice [again] as a psychologist."
So now he's selling pagers and working as an academic counselor and a teacher at Glendale Community College.
And his predicament raises troubling questions.
Were some of the tests or test-taking situations the board ordered Parham to undergo racially biased?
Did the board fail to consider cultural differences when evaluating Parham's actions?
Was Parham's streetwise, offbeat method of practice actually damaging to clients? Or was it simply too quirky to meet approval from a profession driven by a fear of malpractice lawsuits?
Were the bizarre allegations true?
It is unclear when that last question will be answered.
No date has been set for the adjudication of the eight complaints pending against Parham, and his license remains suspended.
Beneath Parham's grinning senior picture in the 1962 Muskegon Heights High School Yearbook are these words: "Little Joe . . . likes girls and sports . . . dislikes homework and sophisticated females . . . well liked by all . . . football for three years . . . Senior Co-Captain . . . the Track Man . . . Champion of Champions."
It's hard to link the grinning face on the yearbook page with the circumstances of Joe Parham's life. He was a father in high school and worked from the age of 8 to buy school clothes. His father, employed at a piston-ring factory, could not afford to clothe his six children.
When a recruiter from Arizona State University asked Parham to attend college on a football scholarship, he was stunned. He hadn't considered college possible, given his other responsibilities. And because he was black, he hadn't been allowed to take college preparatory courses. Back then, at least in Muskegon, Michigan, African-American kids were steered to the "general education" track, meant to prepare them for blue-collar jobs.