Lawsuit: Seeking Help for Bulimia, She Thought She Could Trust Her Therapist

Under Arizona law, it is a crime for a licensed behavioral health professional to have sex with someone they are treating.
Under Arizona law, it is a crime for a licensed behavioral health professional to have sex with someone they are treating. Creative Commons CC0
Monday is the final day for the Liberation Center, an eating disorder treatment center in Phoenix that appears to have been brought down by allegations that one of its employees took advantage of and assaulted a 19-year-old patient.

The lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court December 12 against the employee and the Liberation Center, alleges that the plaintiff and her family were falsely led to believe that the employee was a licensed therapist, when he in fact was not. He abused her trust by initiating sex with her after giving her wine despite her age and her medications, according to the suit.

“She’s been significantly damaged, and she’s very upset about what happened to her,” said Steve Hulsman, an attorney for the woman.

The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for counts of assault and battery, and negligence. It claims that the employee manipulated and assaulted the patient, and that Liberation Center was negligent by hiring the employee and assigning him to treat the woman.

The lawsuit does not name the alleged victim. The employee who allegedly committed the assault, who is named as a defendant in the case, Bency Alphonse, told Phoenix New Times by phone that he had no comment.

The young woman had reportedly struggled with the eating disorder for years, since she was 14.

She went through treatment during high school, in Tempe, and continued when she started classes at Arizona State University's journalism school in fall 2017. A school counselor recommended the Liberation Center, which offered several programs including intensive outpatient therapy. The outpatient program entailed group and individual therapy and nutrition counseling for at least three hours a day. She sought treatment at the center for bulimia, a condition in which people often "purge" or otherwise compensate for overeating by inducing vomiting.

A few weeks after she enrolled, she entered a more intensive treatment the staff recommended. She dropped out of school so she could join the partial-hospitalization program, which ran five days a week from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Around her third week in this program, in late October or early November 2017, a new therapist — Alphonse — joined the center and was assigned to her for individual and group therapy.

They connected well, and as 2018 approached, the Liberation Center allowed her to drop down to the less-intensive program, which allowed her to re-enroll in college classes for the spring semester.

Alphonse paid special attention to the woman, according to the lawsuit. One day in early January, after she had been away on family trips, he invited her into his office, telling her how glad he was to have her back. Then, he kissed her on the forehead.

The woman “saw [Alphonse] as a father figure who had been very influential in her recovery,” the lawsuit states. Meanwhile, he knew that the woman was “afraid, anxious, and highly vulnerable.”

"Transference" had begun, according to the lawsuit. In psychoanalysis, the phenomenon occurs when a patient starts to transfer perceptions and expectations from previous relationships or attachments to their therapist.

On January 12, 2018, the woman had a relapse of bulimia. She texted Alphonse, asking for help. He counseled her, encouraging her to listen to music. They continued texting the next day, and he told her she could call him if she wanted to. She did, and he invited her to come listen to music with him. He texted her an address on Osborn Road that she thought was the location of a restaurant.

She drove there, only to find herself at an apartment building. Alphonse, who was married with a child, told her to come up; his wife and daughter, he told the woman, were still in Florida, where — records show — he had lived as recently as last year.

The lawsuit alleges that the employee then gave the woman wine, even though she was 19 and taking an antidepressant that shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol. She tried to dissuade him from having sex, telling him she was on her period, but they had sex nonetheless.

She felt paralyzed during and after, according to the lawsuit, and she was afraid to leave. When Alphonse told her to stay the night, she did. The next morning, they had sex again, after which she returned to her car and immediately began to gag, the lawsuit says. When she got home, she involuntarily vomited in the shower.

Later that day, encouraged by friends, she went to the emergency room for a rape kit test and reported to the police what had happened. She also told a student advocate at ASU.

The Phoenix police did not respond to a request to confirm the incident or provide records.

The next few days, the woman’s eating disorder symptoms returned. She became depressed and suicidal, according to the lawsuit. She dropped out of school once again to seek full-time therapy and treatment not only with her eating disorder but with the trauma of the assault, it states.

Dr. Lesley Williams, a family medicine physician who started Liberation Center five years ago along with psychiatrist Dr. Adeola Adelayo, told New Times that Alphonse had been let go “because of violation of company policy.” She said she could not answer other specific questions about the man, whom she had hired. She could not recall the exact date of his hiring or his firing.

A web page for an eating disorder treatment center in Miami mentions Alphonse in a post from September 2015 as a "family therapist."

Williams said that generally, in hiring new employees, the Liberation Center would examine their resume and work history, conduct a background check, and check references. “We hire employees that are independently licensed as well as those that are working toward that licensure.” She said she could not speak to whether Alphonse was licensed or not.

He is not, according to the lawsuit — an important detail.

Under Arizona law, it is a felony for a licensed behavioral health professional, psychiatrist, or psychologist to intentionally engage in sexual intercourse “with a client who is currently under [their] care or supervision.”

The woman and her family believed he was licensed, and no one at the center ever told them otherwise, the lawsuit says.

Hulsman said that a prosecutor had looked at the case and decided not to charge the employee specifically because he was not a licensed counselor.

“The prosecutor didn’t think the statute applied to him. If he’d had a license, I’m told that he would’ve been prosecuted,” Hulsman said. He added that the police had decided not to prosecute because the incident wasn’t described as a “forceful rape.”

“Frankly, this calls into question what consent really means,” Hulsman said.

Williams that the center was closing at the end of 2018 not because of the lawsuit but because of a decline in referrals.

“We weren’t getting as many patients in,” Williams said. She and Adelayo decided in October to close the business, because that time of year was when they typically saw a surge in patients. “We didn’t really see that this year,” Williams said.

Hulsman said the woman had told ASU, which referred her to Liberation Center, what happened to her. After that, the school stopped referring students there, which might explain why they had fewer and fewer patients.

A spokesperson for ASU did not respond to a request for comment on this specific case or on its process for referring students to treatment centers.

According to the Liberation Center’s website, both Williams and Adelayo will be working at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, in Scottsdale, after the Liberation Center closes. Williams will also “provide consultative medical services for those struggling with disordered eating” under the newly named Williams Wellness Medical Group.

This story has been updated with the employee's name and his response to a request for comment.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.

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