Listen, my friends, and you shall hear the very interesting story of a lawsuit brought unsuccessfully by the Virginia psychologist, aficionado of prone restraint, and practitioner of barratry, Ronald Federici. As you may have read if you’ve followed this blog at all, Federici has been objecting for a long time to criticisms of the recommendations he makes in his self-published book, Help for the hopeless child. He describes his methods as involving holding therapy—“sequence one and sequence two holds”, and his description closely resembles the methods used by Foster Cline and his followers, except that Federici advises placing the child in the prone position, the position well-known to be associated with deaths in restraint. Federici has objected strongly by means of lawsuits to comments criticizing these practices. He also objected to the mere fact of selected quotations from his book being posted to speak for themselves, but curiously the Amazon “look inside” feature enabled for his book does not seem to disturb him—in fact, he must have chosen it.
For the purpose of educating the public about Federici’s methods, Advocates for Children in Therapy (ACT) has posted quotationsions from Federici’s book on its website www.childrenintherapy.org.
. For some years now, Federici has been working to have these taken down (odd, really, when you remember that you can read practically the whole book on Amazon). He began by bringing complaints under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), which requires Internet hosts to take down a customer’s sute that is complained about, until it can be ascertained whether it is in violation of copyright. However, not surprisingly, ACT had kept its use of quotations well within the “fair use” guidelines—less than a certain length, with clear educational purpose, and not being sold or providing other financial benefit to ACT. Therefore, Federici’s complaints culminated in decisions allowing the material to be posted again.
Recently, Federici took another approach (and as we will see later, this approach is a bit of a habit with him). He brought a lawsuit against two of the leaders of ACT, Larry Sarner andLinda Rosa, for damages and costs due to the claimed copyright violations. The suit, amounting to $10,000, was brought in Small Claims Court in Fairfax County, VA—a venue not far from where Federici lives, but a considerable distance from Linda’s and Larry’s residences in Colorado. For those of you who have had the good fortune not to have been sued in Small Claims Court, let me say how this works: first, you cannot have an attorney with you in this court. Second, the general idea is that if you do not turn up for the court date, the judge normally will find against you and may assess whatever a plaintiff has asked. Third, it is possible to appeal a Small Claims Court judgment to a higher court, and you may represent yourself there too, but most people agree that hiring a lawyer is a much better idea.
As it happened, Sarner was able to be in court in Fairfax County on the court day, May 16. Rosa and Sarner had previously written to the court rejecting the idea that a Virginia court has jurisdiction over people’s activities in Colorado, even if those activities are shown on the Internet and visible to Virginians. (Incidentally, there are clear precedents for this position in Virginia law.) Sarner went to court prepared to argue against jurisdiction, but his preparation turned out to be unnecessary-- because Federici did not appear! The judge asked Sarner whether this kind of suit had happened before (answer: yes), and ended up sanctioning Federici by awarding Sarner $1500 in costs.
How has this all come about? Are there no mechanisms other than the courts for mediating professional disputes or responding to professional criticisms? Of course there are such mechanisms, and they are used effectively by the great majority of psychologists. Generally, professional criticisms and disagreements are made public in professional journal articles, in presentations at professional conferences, in panel discussions, and in public debates. The public nature of these presentations enables other professionals to provide arguments in support of different positions and, it is to be hoped, increases the probability that a logical and evidence-based conclusion will be reached.
Regrettably, Federici has taken none of these routes to dealing with professional criticisms. He has never published any research evidence to support the methods he advises. He has self-published a book, Help for the hopeless child, in two almost identical editions. Criticism of the methods advocated in that book had already appeared before the second edition was published, so it would have been quite possible for Federici to address the existing concerns in the second edition, but he did not do so. Nor, as far as I can tell, has he published any discussion of his treatment methods in any professional journal, or presented them in any venue that would have allowed critical comment. He did not respond, as far as I can tell, to criticisms of his some of his recommendations in the 2006 task force report by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and Division 37 of the American Psychological Association. These facts mean that there has never been any opportunity for direct debate about either the theory (if any) behind Federici’s methods or the level of empirical evidence supporting these methods.
Federici has chosen not to use any of the procedures that are normal ways of resolving professional disputes and responding to critical analysis. Instead, he has resorted to personal and legal attacks on the persons he regards as his primary critics. I will omit any discussion of the personal attacks, which descended to a squalid level, as can be seen in quotations from Federici in an article in Harper’s in 2013 (http://harpers.org/2013/10/cold-war-kids). (Incidentally, his statement in the Harper’s article that one of his critics has had a sex-change operation presumably refers to me, as he has been making this claim for years despite all evidence to the contrary.)
Let me run through some of Federici’s legal actions aimed at stopping public criticism of the methods he recommends in his book. (By the way, I have no way of knowing whether he himself does any of the things he recommends; following a meeting in court, he once asked me to come and work in his office, but I did not do so.)
The first legal action taken by Federici in 2009 involved invoking the DMCA (see above) against the Internet host, Project DOD, then the host of the Advocates for Children in Therapy (ACT) website. This situation is described at http://blog.ericgoldman.org/archives/2009/12/512f_claim_dism.htm. Federici claimed that ACT, had violated copyright by posting quotations from his published work. This complaint was followed under DMCA by the taking down of the web pages, etc., until ACT through a counternotification showed that they had meticulously followed fair use guidelines. Federici’s complaint was followed by similar complaints by such persons as Nancy Thomas, Gregory Keck, and Arthur Becker-Weidman, all of whom complained (with equal inaccuracy) that their copyrights had been violated. The situation culminated in a “reverse DMCA” case in which DOD, the Internet host, complained that Federici was carrying out harassment in an effort to get both ACT and DOD off the Internet. The complaint was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.
Soon after this lawsuit, in 2010, Federici brought suit in Fairfax County Small Claims Court against ACT, Sarner, Rosa, myself, Psychology Today (which had posted my blog at that time), and a number of other people. He charged defamation and interference with his business and asked for damages from each defendant ($3000, if I remember correctly). I attended the court, representing myself and ACT. Federici claimed that he had had patients cancel appointments as a result of what I and others had written on the Internet. He provided a stack of e-mail printouts in support of this contention, but I pointed out that there was no evidence that these were real people and that he had not written the messages himself. The judge found for all the defendants except Psychology Today, which defaulted by failing to appear (and was most annoyed about the whole thing-- this is why I don’t have a PT blog any more but also why Federici will never have one).
Federici appealed the case to the next higher court (which I have already described at http://childmyths.blogspot.com/2011/06/that-lawsuit-again-ronald-s-federic-vs.html), and the court dismissed the case on personal jurisdictional grounds. It turned out, in fact, that I had never written any of the things attributed to me in the complaint, and it was not known who did write most of them. But Federici saw the bright side of the outcome and later stated that the judge had recognized him as an “international public figure”. In fact, what the judge said was that since this was what Federici claimed for himself, he must understand that the bar for defamation was much higher than if he admitted to being an ordinary person.
The Internet being the enemy of privacy that it is, it turns out that Federici has a strong tendency to use the courts for all kinds of problems, not just to quell professional criticism. If you go to http://www.courts.state.va.us and search civil cases in general district courts, you can see quite a history (choose Fairfax County District Court). What’s especially interesting is the way he has “non-suited” a number of the cases he has brought-- he has terminated the proceedings after having served the defendants and put them through all the agitation and planning, taking off work, etc., that occur when people think they must appear in court. (It’s also interesting, at the same Virginia website and at the similar site for Maryland courts, to see the number of traffic offenses he has racked up. There are other places to see other interesting litigation he’s involved in, but since there are other people involved, I won’t give directions.)
Is all this litigation by a psychologist in violation of the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics? This is a slippery problem, and I doubt that inciting to unnecessary litigation is an offense that can easily be included under ethical issues for psychologists. However, there are some principles of ethics for psychologists that in my opinion have been violated by Federici (see www.apa.org/ethics/code/principles.pdf). One of these principles is that of integrity: “Psychologists seek to promote honesty, accuracy, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology. In these activities psychologists do not steal, cheat, or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact.” A second principle is that of justice: “Psychologists exercise reasonable judgment and take precautions to ensure that their potential biases, the boundaries of their competence, and the limitations of their expertise do not lead to or condone unjust practices.” Using the courts rather than normal professional actions to carry on a professional dispute is, I believe, potentially in violation of both these principles.
It is my hope that Ronald Federici will publish the rationale and evidentiary support for his recommended methods in a peer-reviewed journal. As for myself, I would be more than happy to meet him in a public debate or panel discussion, even at short notice.
Update: Federici has not filed an appeal in the recent matter, and the period of time he had to do so has expired.
If any reader is in contact with Patrise Holden, of the northern Virginia-DC area, would you call her attention to this post? I believe she would be interested.