Psychologist Vesela Popovski Engaged in Sex with Patient; Ineligible to Practice for 3 Years

February 11, 2019

On February 6, 2019, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) published the results of a proceeding against psychologist Vesela Popovski resulting in her being reprimanded and ineligible to apply for registration as a psychologist for three years.

Ms. Popovski’s case came before the Tribunal on allegation that she’d engaged in professional misconduct consisting of having “transgressed the  boundaries delineating the psychologist-patient relationship by engaging in inappropriate dual relationships including a social and/or close personal and/or sexual relationship with the patient” and “attempted to deceive and/or mislead the Board of Psychology and/or the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Authority regarding the nature of her previous relationship with the patient during the Board’s investigation into her conduct.

Ms. Popovski came under investigation by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) in October 2015. At that time, she insisted that she’d never had an intimate relationship with the patient. She stated that she’d had no contact with the patient outside treatment and that when treatment ended, she’d made a follow up call, as was her practice, to see how the patient was doing. She stated that she also would see the patient “around by chance” in the small town where they lived. After a number of “chance meetings” a friendship developed. On one occasion, she “bumped into him” and mentioned she was going to meet a friend. He asked if he could come along and she said yes.

Though she denied that he was her boyfriend and that there was ever an intimate relationship, she nonetheless closed her practice in January 2016 and informed the AHPRA that due to family matters, she was retiring from psychology practice.

Despite her “retirement,” the law enables the psychology board to continue an investigation after a person’s registration as a psychologist has ended.

In October 2016, AHRPA sought further response from Popovski on the matters under investigation:

·         She never viewed the patient as a friend but as an acquaintance.

·         What she’d previously referred to as a friendship was only a series of what she believed were chance meetings.

·         That she’d had him in her home on one occasion when he’d stopped by, having recognized her car in the driveway, but that she was uncomfortable.

·         She never telephoned him for social purposes.

·         They’d never developed a close or intimate friendship; it was never romantic or sexual.

·         The patient only attended a social gathering with her because she’d bumped into him on the way to meet a friend and agreed to take him along. She was unable to explain why.

·         She should have considered the repeated “chance meetings” and the patient’s intentions with more of a critical eye and maintained strict patient-doctor boundaries.

·         The patient disclosed his feelings for her in 2011 and she immediately told him she did not share those feelings.

·         It was her usual practice to make follow-up phone calls to patients to find out how they’re progressing.

·         She never introduced him as her boyfriend or her partner.

In March 2017, the AHPRA invited Popovski to provide a further submission. She reiterated her position on all points, denying that there had been anything sexual or romantic between herself and the former patient.

In May 2017, the AHPRA sent Popovski a copy of a statement by the former patient and requested her response. She again denied his allegations (that there had been an intimate relationship, etc.).

The AHPRA referred the case to VCAT. During its proceeding, VCAT provided to Popovski a copy of a witness statement from the former patient. The statement “makes clear the significant detrimental impact the relationship has had on him, with, on his account, the relationship clearly flowing from the psychologist-patient relationship,” the document states.

In July 2018, Popovski filed a half-page statement with VCAT which amounted to a confession. She recanted her previous denials, admitted she’d engaged in the alleged conduct, and realized she had to “confront the truth.”

VCAT found that Popovski “entered into a sexual relationship with a vulnerable person who she had provided with treatment as a psychologist, clearly in breach of relevant ethical codes.” It found her to be “not of good character…not a fit and proper person to engage in the practice of psychology.”

Source: Psychology Board of Australia v Popovski (Review and Regulation) [2019] VCAT (6 February 2019), VCAT Reference No. Z258/2018.

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