Health Care

Settlement bars ex-director of drug treatment center from mental health practice

The now-closed Maple Leaf Treatment Center in Underhill. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

The former clinical director at the Maple Leaf Treatment Center, accused of mistreating patients and staff, has agreed to never practice as a mental health professional again in Vermont.

Dr. Charles Sprague Simonds Jr. was accused of unprofessional conduct toward patients and staff during his 10 months at the Underhill drug and alcohol treatment facility starting in 2016. He faced allegations including making crude and inappropriate comments about female patients, favoring female patients for certain programs, and being abusive to co-workers and staff.

Under a deal reached between Simonds and the state Office of Professional Regulation, Simonds agreed to not renew his already expired license and to never seek another license to practice as a psychologist or in any other mental health profession in Vermont. The “consent order” will also be part of his permanent record that other licensing boards, including those outside of Vermont, could access.

The agreement took more than two years to reach and focused largely on the allegations that Simonds created a “hostile work environment.” There was only a brief, undetailed section on allegations involving patient care. 

The prosecutor on the case, Jennifer Colin, described the agreement as “a very difficult and contentious” one to achieve and noted the “alleged facts are broad and the violations limited.”

Colin told participants in the case by email: “This was not my preference. I agreed to this solely to accomplish the ultimate outcome,” that Simonds agreed to never practice in Vermont again. The agreement, Colin said, was “the result of compromise to achieve this result, which is most protective of Vermonters.”

Simonds worked at Maple Leaf from May 2016 until the facility, which opened in 1956, abruptly closed in February 2017 in part because of a “mass exodus” of staff. Maple Leaf, with a 41-bed facility in Underhill and outpatient facility in Colchester, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and has never reopened.

The agreement, negotiated by Colin and Simond’s attorney, Richard Cassidy, noted Simonds’ unprofessional conduct included “yelling, cursing, intimidation, and demeaning behavior” toward staff, as well as “belittling and degrading them, acting aggressively toward them through his disrespectful and hostile words and conduct.” He was also accused of telling staff members others didn’t like them and spoke poorly about them behind their backs. 

Simond’s actions toward the staff, according to the agreement, negatively impacted patient treatment.

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The original allegations filed with the Office of Professional Regulation, a division of the Vermont Secretary of State's Office, said staff reported that Simonds sexually harassed female patients. According to the charges, he variously told female patients “You look like a whore,” “You are very attractive” and “You are my type of woman.”

The charges said Simonds “failed to maintain appropriate boundaries with patients, communicating to them personal information about himself, making comments that undermined their treatment, and seeking intimate sexual information that was not pertinent in the treatment setting." 

The Maple Leaf Farm Treatment Center in Underhill closed in 2017.

He was also accused of favoring some female patients and helping them get into particular programs over others.

The agreement, however, made little reference to Simonds’ treatment of patients, other than a single violation for incompetence for “failure to conform to the essential standards of acceptable and prevailing practice.” Unlike his behavior toward staff, no details were provided about Simonds’ interactions with patients.

The state did include in the agreement the allegation that Simonds told clinicians that patients should be kept a minimum of 21 days, even though a 14-day program had traditionally been offered, in order for the facility to make more money. Maple Leaf was one of three residential drug treatment centers in the state when it closed.

The center was also accused in 2017 of overbilling the state's Medicaid program by $860,000. It is one of 49 claims against the center, including by employees requesting lost wages and businesses stating they are owed money for services performed or goods sold. 

Simonds, 55, of Stowe, declined comment. As part of the agreement, he neither admitted to the charge or disputed that the charges could be proven. 

Cassidy, his attorney, said in a statement: “In the settlement agreement, the most serious allegations against Dr. Simonds were simply dropped by the Office of Professional Regulation. Dr. Simonds did agree that all that OPR could introduce evidence which -- if uncontradicted -- could tend to show that he used harsh language with the staff and instructed staff members to keep patients at Maple Leaf Farm for a minimum of 21 days.”

“The qualifier, ‘uncontradicted,’ is important. If the case went to a hearing, Dr. Simonds would have introduced contradictory evidence that members of the staff were spoken to firmly, but appropriately, when they failed to meet their responsibilities. He would have introduced scores and scores of emails showing that staff were instructed to keep inpatients for 21 days only if it was clinically appropriate to do so,” Cassidy said.

“He would also have introduced evidence that all of the complainants were disgruntled former Maple Leaf Treatment Center employees, many of whom had coordinated their complaints against him via secret group text messaging. No patient ever filed a complaint against Dr. Simonds,” the lawyer said. The complaints involving patients were noted by staff.

Cassidy said his client settled because he was “personally and financially exhausted” by the case.

“He looks forward to moving on in a different direction,” Cassidy said.

Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in 2017. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

The agreement was approved by the Vermont Board of Psychological Examiners, which oversees the profession, on Feb. 14.

Simonds was fired from a job as psychologist at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in November 2017 shortly after the allegations involving Maple Leaf were filed. State officials said they were unaware of the allegations when Simonds was hired.

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Colin thanked those who brought the allegations to light.

“It was not a comfortable process for any of you, which is probably the understatement of the year, but the ultimate result is that YOU have helped to protect Vermonters and possibly other people in other places, as the stipulation will be a matter of public record and published on our website once it is approved.  Without your participation, the case would have never been in a place where I could have gotten it settled,” Colin told those who participated.

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