State suspends social worker for 10 years

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WALLA WALLA — The Washington state Department of Health has handed down a judgment against a local social worker, calling the evidence presented “clear and convincing” examples of unprofessional conduct.

Laurie Heikkenen, who founded and owned Palouse Counseling, was suspended on Dec. 13 from practicing for 10 years and she cannot seek reinstatement before then, or ask for modification to the Jan. 25 order sooner than five years.

Heikkenen was charged in March by the state licensing agency for entering into personal relationships with two clients, accepting gifts from these patients, getting herself named a personal representative in a patient’s will and entering into a payment scheme with one of the patients.

Heikkenen was registered as a mental health counselor in 1988 and licensed as an independent clinical social worker by Washington state in 2005.

In 2004, the counselor began treating Tina Schmieirer of Walla Walla, who was diagnosed with numerous mental-health issues.

“She was a very vulnerable patient,” noted Tammy Kelley, case manager with the Department of Health, in April.

At that time, Heikkenen was not an eligible provider on this client’s insurance and did not become so for nearly six years. The social worker told Schmierer she would wait to bill her until Schmierer became employed, the charging document said.

The counselor repeatedly told her not to worry about the insurance issue, Schmierer said Thursday. “And I had insurance. I had good insurance.”

According to the state, after Heikkenen indicated she was under financial stress in late 2005, Schmierer gave the provider nearly $30,000 — charged against Macy’s and Discover accounts — over several years, provided beef valued at $500 and a number of smaller items.

Heikkenen deducted the stated value of the items from the client’s bill and was to make monthly payments toward the credit card balances.

“She started making payments but it never balanced out. She didn’t pay anything off, but kept the client at bay,” Kelley said last year, calling Heikkenen’s behavior “an extreme abuse of power.”

The impact on her family has been devastating, Schmierer said. “I trusted her, I spilled out everything to her and then she used that against me. It was like being hit in the stomach. Don’t tell everything to someone you think you can trust.”

The DOH documents show that 14 email conversations between the two women were entered as exhibits into evidence, along with copies of checks Schmierer gave Heikkenen.

Heikkenen assured Schmierer she would repay the loan, but now she is stuck with it, paying off the credit card debt as her family is able, Schmierer said. “Every day it’s a reminder. I have to realize I put my family in jeopardy.”

At the December hearing, it was documented Heikkenen filed for bankruptcy in 2010, with $11,000 still owing to Schmierer.

“It’s a mess that just keeps compounding. We’re dying here,” Schmierer said.

Heikkenen also accepted gifts and meals from Schmierer, and gave the family gifts. The counselor revealed personal information about herself in emails, according to the statement of charges.

That should have been a warning, and it’s a lesson she hopes others will absorb, Schmierer said. “If someone tells you too much about their life, if they do more than they should for you, run. Safeguard yourself.”

Schmierer recommended people looking for a therapist check credentials on the DOH website and talk to their primary care physician. “Don’t just go to the phone book. Do the research.”

She and her family are working to put the ordeal behind them, Schmierer said. “I want my money back and I want it to be over. I want to move on.”

The Department of Health also said Heikkenen had an inappropriate relationship with another client.

According to the state, the social worker provided in-home treatment services to Jerald Ivie, who was terminally ill with cancer and diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder.

For about two years, Heikkenen allegedly helped the elderly man with basic needs such as grocery shopping and transportation to medical appointments, in addition to 24 therapeutic appointments.

During that time Heikkenen gave Ivie hugs and helped him draft his will, using two of her acquaintances as witnesses, which falls below the standard of care and represents a risk of exploitation, the state said.

The will named Heikkenen as personal representative and specified she could borrow money against Ivie’s estate. He died May 14, 2010, and the social worker was with him at the time.

Heikkenen sought to not lose her license but instead undergo ethics education and be allowed to practice under supervision. Consideration of public safety ruled those options out, according to the decision by Jerry Mitchell, health law judge.

Heikkenen will have to pay the state $5,000 in fines and notify the DOH of any address changes, plus pay for all cost associated with compliance of the order.

The 10-year suspension for the Walla Walla social worker speaks to the “terrible results” Heikkenen’s clients had in her care, said Donn Moyer, media relations manager for the state Department of Health. “One thing that is so important in health care providers and their work is the trust. This case significantly breaches that trust.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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