Inappropriate relationships were just cause for dismissal of Penticton mental health worker | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Inappropriate relationships were just cause for dismissal of Penticton mental health worker

Labour board arbitration ruling holds up suspension and dismissal of Penticton mental health worker for breaking rules of conduct with clients.
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PENTICTON - A Penticton mental health worker who repeatedly violated workplace codes of conduct by maintaining personal relationships with clients was justifiably fired, according to the B.C. Labour Relations Board.

Debora Barg worked for 18 years as program coordinator at Canadian Mental Health Association’s Unity House in Penticton without any discipline, but was fired in 2017. She and her union grieved her dismissal to the labour relations board but got no recourse, in part because of a long and troubling pattern of ignoring important workplace rules.

Among her inappropriate contacts was a sexual relationship with man that originated before he became a client, but maintained well after she knew it was in clear violation of the code of conduct. 

Arbitrator James E Dorsey, in a recent decision, laid out the litany of allegations over several years that led to her suspension then dismissal.

Most allegations surrounded two clients, identified only by initials. She maintained a sexual relationship with C.M., spent inordinate amounts of time with him on work time and even brought him to a staff function and advocated for him to be hired as a custodian. She denied a relationship with another client, D.B., was anything more than a friendship despite rumours that went through the facility because she met with the man regularly in his home and her home.

“By her actions, explanations and excuses, professional boundaries in her relationships with C.M. and D.B. became blurred, faded and then opaque or invisible to her and deliberately camouflaged from some others,” Dorsey wrote. “She still does not see them.”

The decision describes not a case of nefarious deeds nor malicious intent but instead a mental health worker who extended her care to all aspects of her life. When someone needed help, she gave it. She would freely offer rides, would visit with clients at their homes or arranged movie nights at her own home. Some of her clients were desperately looking for work to supplement meagre assistance, so she offered some cash to help her move or to stay at her house while she was away. She used her personal cellphone and gave out her number because it was more convenient for clients.

But Dorsey pointed out there are very good reasons why personal relationships are a clear breach of ethics. Someone in her position has the duty to help clients or patients get support from family, friends, and organizations in the community. Establishing boundaries assures there’s no confusion by the patient about the nature of the professional relationship. It also avoids inappropriate intimacy, real or perceived exploitation for financial or other reasons.

Barg’s case would illustrate many of these concerns.

Part of her job was to bring clients together for support, which was immediately difficult because as was made clear to her years ago, her preference for individual counselling, often spending long hours with individual clients, none more than her two closest relationships, alienated employees and clients at Unity House. She began a relationship with C.M. before he was a client, but after he was referred to her, she ignored clear code of conduct rules and maintained the relationship for almost a year.

Other employees and clients noted the “uncomfortable” amount of time C.M. spent in Barg’s office, and one employee said her “chin hit the floor” when Barg brought C.M. to a staff Christmas party, in direct contravention of the association’s rules of conduct.

Barg never disputed the nature of that relationship which ended naturally. She did deny a romantic relationship with D.B. but her previous relationship likely fed the rumour mill and client concerns when she developed another close care-giving relationship with him. She visited with him almost daily in his home or hers and was in the habit of signing for his medication — a clear violation. She also became his emergency support contact for another agency, among many other concerns.

The blurring of boundaries and roles devolved over time as she worked largely without proper supervision, Dorsey noted. That changed in 2017 and when a new administrator was hired, she began investigating immediately. After she was given clear and defined direction to stop these behaviours, she continued to ignore them, even after she was suspended for the investigation, leading to her immediate termination.

“Despite her caring and commitment, Ms. Barg failed over an extended period in many ways,” Dorsey wrote.

“While some might likely say 'no good deed goes unpunished' in Ms. Barg’s position all of her work with all clients within proper boundaries were good deeds. Her relationships outside the boundaries jeopardized those good deeds.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad or call 250-488-3065 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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