Oregon’s appeals court ruled Wednesday that a state board was wrong to permanently revoke the license of a psychologist who told the parents of a 9-year-old boy to bottle feed him chocolate milk, engage him in “tummy time” and isolate him from the family to treat what they said were troublesome behaviors.
The ruling, however, let stand the Board of Psychologist Examiner’s emergency order temporarily suspending Debra Kali Miller’s license — meaning she still cannot see patients.
Miller, who lives in Portland, did not return a message left Wednesday by The Associated Press.
According to court documents, Miller specialized in treating children with traumatic pasts whom she frequently diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, or RAD, a rare and serious psychiatric condition in which an infant doesn’t form healthy relationships with caregivers.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychiatric Association have criticized non-traditional treatments for the disorder as dangerous and psychologically harmful.
Such treatments can include forcefully holding down a child to force them to relive early childhood trauma and so-called regression therapy, which can involve having an older child use a pacifier or bottle, wear a diaper or be held like an infant by a caregiver so they can “relive” a period of their infancy that was troubled.
The diagnosis is controversial in children older than 5.
According to state board documents, Miller told the father and stepmother of the boy she treated to feed him warm chocolate milk from a baby bottle while his father held him and made eye contact, have him crawl and do “tummy time” twice a day and feed him candy or other sweets — a practice she called “baby-birding” — when he behaved well.
The treatment plan was intended to encourage bonding with the father, who reported that the boy’s birth mother had abused methamphetamine during her pregnancy and was emotionally unstable. The boy was living with the father and stepmother, a woman who refused to hug him and rarely interacted with him, according to the documents.
His parents complained that he lied frequently, didn’t do his chores, had trouble falling asleep and stole food from classmates, according to the state board.
The boy attempted suicide at age 11 and was found to be severely depressed after he was hospitalized.
State officials began to investigate and ultimately took administrative action against Miller after hospital psychologists disagreed with her diagnosis of RAD.
The board found, among other things, that Miller referred the parents for additional treatment and therapies to practitioners who had no license or medical background. Her diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder was inaccurate, the board found, and the treatments she prescribed had no medical basis.
Child welfare officials simultaneously learned that the boy’s parents had installed an alarm on his bedroom door, made him eat alone, had hit him several times in the face and made him urinate in a jar in his room at night, according to a 176-page summary of the case on the state board website.
He was required to call his stepmother “Queen.”
While in the hospital, the boy became more relaxed, befriended doctors and nurses and began looking people in the eye, according to the board. He was ultimately removed from the home by state welfare officials and placed in a foster home.
He has since been adopted by “very loving people,” William Foote, an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice, told the AP.
Miller, who acted as her own attorney, argued that she had not been given adequate opportunity to defend herself because the state board decided to terminate her psychology license after just one hearing that was supposed to focus on a temporary suspension of her license.
She did not have enough time to prepare, didn’t have enough money to hire an attorney and should have had a separate hearing about losing her license forever, she said.
She has also said that the boy attempted suicide six months after she stopped treating him.
The state board will have to decide whether to appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court or hold a new hearing over whether to revoke Miller’s license permanently, Foote said.
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