State fires psychiatrist, suspends license over allegations of child sexual abuse

January 7, 2012

An 8-year-old allegation of child sexual abuse at Austin State Hospital led state investigators to reopen old cases in the spring against Dr. Charles Fischer and piece together a "disturbing pattern" of abuse, according to records from the Texas Medical Board.

The Department of Family and Protective Services spent more than five months re-interviewing people who had alleged abuse, reviewing old complaints and scouring old police reports, according to the transcript of a recent medical board hearing about Fischer's license. That was the first time the department had ever reviewed the cases as a whole and, because of that, the department ultimately produced a 54-page investigative file detailing multiple allegations against Fischer, the records state.

"The victims' statements in the file contained indications of a disturbing pattern of grooming, building trust and then abusing young boys who were sent to (Fischer) for the expressed purpose of getting help with their own (psychiatric) issues," Texas Medical Board attorney Christopher M. Palazola told the board during the hearing.

For more than 20 years, Fischer, 59, was a child psychiatrist in the child and adolescent unit of Austin State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility for people with serious mental illness.

In late October, the state Department of Family and Protective Services told hospital officials that it had confirmed two cases of sexual abuse against hospital patients.

The Department of State Health Services, which oversees the state-run psychiatric facilities, officially fired Fischer on Nov. 14. The Texas Medical Board suspended his license Nov. 22.

No criminal charges have been filed against Fischer, but agencies including the Texas Rangers and the Austin Police Department are investigating.

Fischer's attorney did not return a message this week seeking comment.

On Tuesday, the medical board gave the Statesman a copy of the transcript of the hearing in which Fischer was suspended. The records lay out for the first time what prompted the Department of Family and Protective Services to re-examine old sexual abuse complaints against the psychiatrist.

The case against Fischer began in May, when a counselor called Protective Services to report that her client said he'd been abused at Austin State Hospital in 2003, according to the transcript.

That client - referred to in documents as Patient One - told the counselor that Fischer had sexually abused him at the hospital when he was about 14 years old.

According to the transcript, the boy and his mother told a hospital employee at the time that he had been abused, but the family believed that "their statement was not taken seriously."

In the suspension order issued last month, the medical board accuses Fischer of abusing nine patients: seven at Austin State Hospital between the ages of 13 and 17; a 16-year-old patient who said he was abused in 1992 at the Waco Center for Youth, a state-run psychiatric facility for children up to 18; and one at Southwest Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Antonio whose age was not noted in the order.

The hearing transcript makes passing reference to a 10th patient but offers no details about that case.

The medical board document notes that investigators found that the seven patients at Austin State Hospital never accused anyone else of sexual abuse during their time at the facility. The accusers were all teens. Many were offered special privileges by Fischer, such as computer time, the transcript states.

"When you look through these statements," Palazola told the board, "what we see is a pattern of conduct that demonstrates that this respondent and these victims all seem to have the same type of interaction described."

It is unclear exactly how frequently Fischer may have come before the medical board since he was licensed in 1984.

The board does not make complaints or investigations against physicians public unless disciplinary action is taken. The transcript makes no reference to previous medical board investigations into Fischer, and it had never disciplined him until his license was suspended last month.

But 20 years' worth of personnel records provided upon request by the Department of State Health Services indicate that Fischer was called before the medical board at least once.

In November 2007, Fischer's supervisor, Christine Laguna, wrote that the psychiatrist had an "upcoming hearing with the Texas Medical Board and continues to have the full support of the hospital administration."


Source: Kelly West, "Records show Texas agency revived old abuse cases to find state psychiatrist's 'disturbing pattern'," Austin American Statesman, December 14, 2011.



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