Joe Parham Stands Up
Tony Freman needed his mother.
He had been selling drugs on Minneapolis street corners, which got some people irritated with him. So he jumped on a Greyhound a few months ago, hoping to meet up with his mother in Phoenix. He hadn't forgotten that when he was small, he and his mother were a team, a couple of survivors. Once in Phoenix, though, Freman found his mother in a shelter for the homeless with his baby half-sister. It didn't take long for him to learn that mom cared more about crack than her kids.
Being the man of the family, Freman moved his mother and little sister into a cheap motel and took care of them until his money ran out. Then his family disappeared with his mother's boyfriend.
The teenager figured he'd stay with one of his mother's female friends until he got on his feet. But the woman's husband kicked him out of the house, saying Freman was "trouble."
So Freman found himself wandering down East Main Street in Mesa, past gated RV parks and RV sales lots and RV repair shops and the Starlight Motel, which advertises weekly and monthly rates beneath a neon sign of a girl diving over and over into a swimming pool. Next to the Starlight, a taller sign caught Freman's eye.
Liberty Communications Pagers for Peace of Mind, the sign said.
Check it out, Freman told himself.
And that's how he met Joseph Parham, Ph.D.
A few years ago, the state of Arizona might have referred Freman to Parham and paid the psychologist to counsel the boy. But when Freman walked into Parham's office looking for support, Parham gave it to him--for free.
Parham is forbidden to take money for providing psychological services.
In 1995, the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners indefinitely suspended Parham's license to practice psychology, contending that Parham is too mentally "impaired" to practice. Until the suspension, Parham, 53, had specialized for 20 years in counseling the gang members, street kids and prisoners referred to him by various state agencies.
As he contests that suspension, Parham sells pagers from the same office building he owns and had used as a psychologist. He also has plans to open a traffic survival school in the empty rooms where troubled clients were once counseled.
The only pleasant room in Parham's sad building is his private office. There, he spends a lot of time just sitting behind his rosewood desk, trying to figure out what to do next. On the desk, he still keeps the obligatory box of tissues, and an empty rose-colored chair awaits absent clients. On one shelf, near his football and political memorabilia, is a brass plaque from a segregated rest room that says Negro Males.
Parham has time on his hands these days, so when Freman asked for work, Parham allowed him to paint a giant pager and letter Liberty Communications on the windows of the establishment. He used a pigeon feather as a paintbrush for the finer details. Freman also answers the phone from time to time. His hours are irregular--he shows up when he's hungry and lonely.
Parham won't pay Freman--the man's financial future is almost as uncertain as the boy's. Besides, Parham has never paid the other lonely kids who hang around his office and say they "work" there. They just seem to warm to Parham, and he just wants to help them as best he can.
As a psychologist, Joe Parham was known for his offbeat, workaholic methods of practice: He insisted on being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week; he gave out his home number to clients and often allowed sessions to continue for hours at a time--late into the night, if necessary; he even met clients at restaurants and on street corners.
He grew up on the streets of a Michigan factory town, and despite his advanced degree, he's never abandoned a certain streetwise world view. But he does not look like the sort who would be safe on the mean streets. He suffers from arthritis, his neck is stiff. He moves his entire body to turn his head and walks with a slight limp. He wears a big wristwatch trimmed in gold and turquoise along with several gold neck chains, all payments made by a jeweler in exchange for psychological services.
He's not a particularly large man, but Parham once played football for Arizona State University. Later, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on racism in the athletic department. From that moment on, controversy always seemed to follow him, in one way or another.
An African American, Parham has long been an active east Mesa Republican, and he once served on the staff of impeached former governor Evan Mecham, defending the man known across the nation for rescinding a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and advocating a book for an official celebration that used the word "pickaninny."
Parham continues to work in the Republican party, but he seems to be too embarrassed to ask for political help in dealing with his current predicament.
It is an odd one.
For two decades, Parham's record with the state Board of Psychologist Examiners was clean, unblemished by a single disciplinary action.
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.
But Parham did not want a blue-collar job, and if Frank Kush wanted him to play at ASU, it was a ticket out.
His experiences on ASU's football team were fodder for the doctoral dissertation he would write several years later. The well-researched thesis examined reasons most black athletes failed to graduate from the university. Parham concluded the school regularly recruited undereducated blacks, encouraged them to take easy courses so they could maintain grade point averages necessary to qualify them for athletic scholarships and then four years later, when the scholarships expired, dumped the athletes back on the streets, without professional football contracts or diplomas. Parham offered a number of solutions, including remedial classes for black athletes.
"If the University is going to continually recruit deprived blacks, it must also provide the athletes with the special educational treatment they require," he wrote in his dissertation, which caught the attention of Phoenix newspapers and infuriated ASU athletic officials.
Parham had no remedial classes. He remembers staying up night after night, trying to master reading and spelling and math that had not been drummed into the heads of the future factory workers at Muskegon Heights High.
There were other struggles, of course. He almost left school for good after a dorm official accused him of stealing sandwiches. He occasionally had to return to Michigan to work in factories to help support his child. And during these visits, he sired other children.
"Every time I went home," he says, "somebody got pregnant."
During one visit to Michigan, Parham and his girlfriend got in a fight, and he brought his son to live--illicitly--in the dorm with him. His friends baby-sat when he went to class.
In all, Parham has seven children from four different women. He only married two of these women--briefly. The others, he says, wanted to marry him, but he was wary of marriage. He says the women may have become pregnant in order to coax him into marriage. He modeled his relationships with the opposite sex on the behavior of his dad, who had children by different women.
In Parham's streetwise world view, there is nothing morally wrong with his having had a bunch of kids with a bunch of women, because, he claims, he financially supported all his children.
Despite the obstacles, Parham was the only African-American member of his football team to graduate from ASU in 1967. A year later, he entered graduate school on a scholarship, working on the side as a counselor for ASU, the City of Phoenix and Maricopa County.
When he received his doctorate and returned to Michigan, a few of his old friends didn't believe he'd actually earned the degree. Many thought he'd been in prison or in Vietnam.
He began to see he was different. He saw himself as a role model for his race, and he began to feel isolated--even from the women with whom he was in love.
Those relationships never lasted because he hid his failures and weaknesses, he now says.
After a while, he gave up on the thought of being happily married.
In Arizona he always seemed to be working several jobs at once. He spent so much time with street kids and gang members that he had little time for his own children. His adult daughter Renae says she felt her dad was unavailable, distant, sometimes inflexible.
"He feels we have to go through the same struggle he did," she says, adding that she learned of her father's battles with the psychology board from a newspaper article. He could not bring himself to discuss the embarrassing event with Renae.
"He can't take failure," she says. "That's not allowed in his life."
Not even Parham's 80-year-old mother, Maria, who has lived with her son in his Tempe home for the past six years, knows of his struggles with the state board. And even Maria tires of her son's addiction to work. She plans on permanently returning to Michigan because she's lonely in Arizona. Life's not meant to be spent in front of a television set.
All Joe does, she says, is "work, work, work, work."
During several lengthy interviews with New Times, Parham has occasional difficulty concentrating on questions and tends to repeat himself. For instance, he mentions several times that in 1994, at the very time the board was investigating him, he won the Hon Kachina Award for his work with gang members. (The award, issued each year to 12 people who volunteer in the community, is sponsored by KPNX-TV, Channel 12, and Luke's Men, a group affiliated with St. Luke's Hospital.)
He also says several times during the course of the interviews: "I got a headline for your article. 'Will the Real Joe Parham Please Stand Up.'"
Until now, Parham has kept his personal life quite private, largely because he thinks of himself as a role model for young black males. Experts say his decision to keep problems to himself is typical of middle-aged black men with working-class backgrounds and advanced degrees. Such men often feel isolated by their "role model" status.
"When you go home, friends and family look at you as if you are on a pedestal," says Mitchell Gibson, an East Valley African-American psychiatrist. "So it's a very precarious position, because you don't know exactly what it will take to bring that down. You feel if you make a mistake, the whole thing will come tumbling down.
"If there was a community of people like you and a track record, you wouldn't feel nearly as isolated. You feel like you have to dot your i's and cross your t's three or four times."
Although Joe Parham says he has no close male friends, he counts state Senator Tom Freestone as a pal. Freestone, an east Mesa Republican, met Parham decades ago when the two were both lifting weights at a health club.
Parham says Freestone talked him into becoming a Republican, a notion the psychologist had been toying with since he'd learned in college that Republicans freed the slaves. Parham eventually bought an office building from the Freestone family, settled in east Mesa and learned about the Mormon religion. Although he never converted to Mormonism, he was sufficiently connected with the Mormon Church to receive a family history from the genealogy department. There were no surprises. His white ancestors, named Parham, migrated from England to Georgia and purchased and bedded with his African-American ancestors.
Through Freestone, Parham became involved in east Mesa politics. By 1985, he was president of the East Valley Black Association and began hosting breakfasts for Republican dignitaries, including John McCain.
By 1986, Parham had become sufficiently prominent politically to warrant a Mesa Tribune column titled "Parham's Ink." One column suggested people shouldn't take "pot shots" at Mecham "before he even takes office."
"I suppose that like many people I have some reservations about our new governor-elect," Parham wrote, lamenting Mecham's intention to kill the statewide Martin Luther King holiday.
But, he said, "We owe it to ourselves to give Mecham a chance and not strike him down before he even takes office."
A few weeks later, Mecham appointed Parham to head the state Office of Affirmative Action. Not everyone in the black political community was thrilled, Parham recalls.
"People would say to me, 'Joe, you work for a racist.' And I would say to them, 'What makes you so sure you don't work for one?'"
A few African-American leaders, including Pastor Warren Stewart and House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, say they figure it was better to have a black man in Mecham's cabinet than no one at all.
"We never felt there was a conflict or a betrayal of the community," Hamilton says. "If we wanted to get word to the other side of the aisle, Joe had their ear."
Then Mecham insulted African Americans by recommending that a book containing the word "pickaninny" be used in an official celebration. To this day, Parham says Mecham was not racist, but simply insensitive and ignorant.
When an attempt to recall Mecham appeared to be gaining power, Parham saw an opportunity to influence the governor and help the black community at the same time. He drafted a "Program to Combat the Recall," suggesting that the governor appoint minorities to important positions, ask for a special legislative session to address the King holiday and change the image of the governor's "personal style" by visiting black churches.
Mecham refused to hand the holiday brouhaha over to the Legislature, but agreed, with some reservations, to visit the churches.
Although Art Hamilton remembers the church visitations as something of a fiasco, both Parham and Mecham say the visits, which were cut short by the 1988 impeachment proceedings, were successful.
"I was never treated more courteously by people anyplace, as I was treated in black churches," Mecham says during a recent interview. "Black people don't dislike Ev Mecham."
With characteristic clumsiness, Mecham then cites evidence for that statement: He volunteers that black "porters" at the airport are "kind and courteous" when they help him with luggage.
"At least," Parham now says, "you knew where the governor was coming from."
After Mecham's impeachment, Parham remained an active Republican. He kept up his affiliations with former House leader Mark Killian, Tom Freestone and others. He's still "very active" in the Arizona African-American Republican Committee, which he founded, says Fred Taylor, director of Community Outreach for the Governor's Office and the current president of the committee.
When asked why he didn't tell his political friends about his predicament with the state board, Parham says he was embarrassed.
His silence also surprises Taylor.
"He has contacts," says Taylor. "He knows the governor; he knows more people in this town than I do."
Shortly after Mecham was impeached, Parham's father died, which, Parham says, was "the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life." He began having panic attacks. He testified before the state board during a hearing that the panic attacks were similar to "walking down the street and thinking that you're losing it" and feeling as if "the ground is falling away from under you."
He now says the attacks came on because he had bottled up too much, had been alone too long on top of the mountain.
A psychiatrist prescribed medication to ease Parham's depression and anxiety, but Parham told his family the pills were for a persistent sinus condition. He feared that the pills would be viewed as a sign of failure and weakness by his family and peers.
It's a typical perspective for blacks, says Gibson, the psychiatrist. "Taking prescribed drugs or being in mental health [treatment] in general is not seen as something desirable in the black community," he says.
Gibson suspects that during this period of his life, Parham may have worked so hard that he failed to monitor a high-blood-pressure condition and perhaps suffered a series of tiny strokes that caused the brain damage that the state board refers to.
No one knows what happened.
But by 1994, Parham began receiving notice of the complaints that ultimately led to the series of tests that, in turn, led to his current suspension.
For a reason that is unclear, the Board of Psychologist Examiners sent Parham to a white psychologist in Scottsdale for his first evaluation. And it is that evaluation that has driven the board's decision to strip Parham of his ability to practice his profession.
"There are a number of black therapists they could have sent him to," says Gibson. "There are black psychologists who do that kind of testing."
Gibson says studies show African Americans generally score better on psychological tests when the tests are administered by black therapists. When confronted with a white test giver, Gibson says, an African American's "fear level is twice as much, because of a history of a lot of abuses in that system."
Parham also inadvertently affected his testing ability by not taking his anxiety medication on the day of the test. Parham's doctor later testified that failing to take the anxiety medication had the effect of plummeting him into a panic attack during the testing process.
Parham scored so low on the tests as to seem barely functional.
Parham was sent to another doctor, who later wrote "judgment appeared normal." The doctor asked Parham if he took medications. Parham said no, and he hadn't taken any drugs that day. But a urine test showed residues of the previous week's antidepressants and anxiety medication.
The board sent Parham to a neurologist, Allen Yudell, who concluded Parham was "perfectly normal."
"The man I saw today would not appear to be the person described in the notes of [Scottsdale psychologist] Dr. Beck," Yudell wrote. "I saw no significant deficits of intellectual function in cursory examination today."
Still, Parham's license remained suspended.
To see if Parham was practicing despite the suspension, the psychologists board sent a detective masquerading as a patient to Parham's office. Later, the detective testified Parham "treated" her for about 10 minutes, after which she gave a check to the downstairs bookkeeper and left the office.
Parham claims that he did not treat the woman, that he just chatted with her for a few minutes and sent her to another doctor. He says he had no idea the check had been paid to the bookkeeper.
But at a hearing, the state board concluded that Parham was practicing while his license was suspended. What's more, the state board said, the psychologist had lied to a board doctor about his prescription medications to curb anxiety and depression.
Even more tests were ordered.
In December 1995, a doctor from Barrow Neurological Institute testified that Parham had suffered an inexplicable form of brain damage. "I documented the presence of impaired brain function," said Dr. Bruce Blackwood, "but I also explicitly stated in the report that the fact that Dr. Parham has some impaired brain function may or may not have any relevance to the practice of psychology. One of the things we know in neuropsychology is that individuals who suffer reduced capacity because of injury or illness tend to do best at things they know best.
"With many many years of experience and background and exposure to the activities of his job and completing the activities over many, many years, Dr. Parham could very well be able to comply with the demands of the job even with the obvious abnormalities that show up on my examination."
Parham had his share of other supporters during the hearing on his license suspension.
Several clients wrote letters to the psychologists board. Wesley Lamont Rudolf is a typical client: "I am from the roughest streets of California. I can rip you off faster than you could imagine . . .
"He [Parham] is like a father figure to me. He should be something to you, too. I am not in your jails. You are not supporting me and my family through welfare . . . Dr. Parham gave me reason [sic]. Don't take this reason from me and hundreds of other street smart men, women and children who need him."
Counts, the only African-American member of the board, consistently questioned the suspension.
"The African-American community doesn't have many African-American psychologists," Counts said. "Not many people will work with inner-city gang members--there's a tremendous need. . . . We've had him [Parham] evaluated and evaluated and evaluated. There's really only one expert who said he's dysfunctional."
No consultant could really explain how the brain damage might have caused the bizarre behavior reported by the complainants.
That was back in 1995. Parham went home and tried to pull together a plan for a year-round charter school for at-risk kids. At first it appeared that he would get the charter. Then the Department of Education learned about Parham's license suspension and killed the application.
The way Joe Parham sees it, the Man finally got him. Joe had assimilated to white culture for a long time, but he knew sooner or later the System would take him down. He should have followed the advice he gave African-American students: Be vigilant. Be extra cautious.
"I hate to sound egotistical," he says, "but Arizona lost a damn good psychologist."
On Parham's wall in his tiny office at Glendale Community College, there is a painting of the Last Supper. The disciples are Elijah Mohammed, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other African-American heroes. Only the skin color of Jesus is unclear--the painting shows his halo and robed back.
On the other side of the cramped space, there is a bulletin board upon which is tacked an advertisement to consider a career in chiropractic.
Parham has counseled for the community-college system for more than two decades.
"Joe is a good counselor," his supervisor, Chuck Zontanos, says. "He's appropriate and very intuitive, and as far as I'm concerned he's qualified."
An evaluation form submitted by students in Parham's "Personal Development for African-American Students" class gives him superior ratings.
One of those students is Jevon, a 21-year-old emigre from the streets of Los Angeles. His brother, whom he loved, was recently murdered, shot twice in the chest in what Jevon calls a "walk by."
Jevon has other problems--a baby on the way, bleak employment opportunities unless he can get through Glendale and transfer to ASU.
"I used to be a licensed psychologist," he says. "And the System took away my license. And one of the problems now is that because I don't have my license, I am not able to deal with brothers in the System. I used to go to the jails to help the brothers, I used to go everywhere."
"The Man took that away from you, huh," Jevon says, staring at his hands. Then he looks up at his friend.
"You don't need that license, man," he says.
"You don't need that.
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