A former intern at Vashon Youth & Family Services is suing the agency and its previous clinical director, who served as the intern’s supervisor and provided counseling to her and one of her children in his private practice.
The 12-page complaint, filed in King County Superior Court on June 16, alleges that counselor Jeffrey Zheutlin’s treatment of the plaintiffs — the woman and her son — fell below the standard of care and that he exploited his position, resulting in “significant and long lasting damage … including physical and mental trauma and pain, emotional distress and anguish.” The complaint also states that the nonprofit social service agency “permitted quid pro quo sexual harassment at its workplace” — harassment that occurs when a person in a position of power makes employment contingent on sexual favors. Lawyers for both Zheutlin and Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS) refute the allegations. The lawsuit comes nearly one year after the state took action against Zheutlin for becoming romantically involved with the woman who brought the suit, action the state deemed unprofessional conduct and in violation of state laws.
Last week, islander Bob Krinsky, Zheutlin’s attorney, briefly addressed the litigation, but declined to comment further.
“We completely deny the allegations except for the fact to which he already admitted regarding a boundary violation because he had a relationship with the person he was treating,” Krinsky said. “We deny that the relationship caused damage.”
In VYFS’s response, filed July 6, the agency denied all wrongdoing and asked that the suit be dismissed and that the agency be awarded its related costs and attorneys’ fees.
VYFS Executive Director Kathleen Johnson directed all questions about the matter to the agency’s attorney, Francis Floyd, in Seattle. He also declined to comment.
According to the complaint, the plaintiff, identified as R.G., first contacted Zheutlin in November 2011 to obtain counseling for her son. As part of that treatment, he met with all family members and began providing treatment to another child in the family as well. In February 2012, R.G. began seeing Zheutlin privately for counseling and frequently attended the sessions for her son. In September 2012, she entered graduate school to become a therapist, and in the summer of 2013, Zheutlin, while still her therapist, secured her an internship at VYFS.
The documents also allege that as R.G.’s counselor, Zheutlin “engaged in manipulative forms of communication while simultaneously instructing her that no one aside from him could help her or understand her problems” and that he told her not to seek treatment for an eating disorder — treatment she ultimately obtained. Because of the tactics Zheutlin used, R.G. became depressed and began abusing alcohol and prescription medications as a means of escape.
In September 2014, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) began investigating Zheutlin’s conduct. According to the lawsuit, Zheutlin convinced R.G. that the investigation was her fault and that she began to fear for her safety because of his anger.
The complaint also takes aim at VYFS, saying that Zheutlin pursued a sexual relationship with R.G., including unwanted sexual advances in front of VYFS staff and interns, and that he made a sexual relationship a condition of her internship.
Damages are to be determined at a trial, with a preliminary date set for June 5, 2017, the documents show.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Evan Fuller of Tacoma, did not respond to requests for comment.
Zheutlin worked at VYFS for 22 years, first as a therapist, and in the last decade of his employment, overseeing the agency’s counseling program, managing staff and carrying a small caseload of clients, Johnson said previously. He resigned from the agency in September 2014, after the DOH opened its investigation. In June of last year, the department suspended his license for six months, required that he take 12 hours of continuing education regarding boundaries and ethics and pay a fine of $2,000. At the time, DOH case manager Tammy Kelley said the state never condones sexual misconduct on the part of a health professional, but it does consider aggravating and mitigating factors. In this case, she said, sanctions were on the low end of the spectrum because Zheutlin did not have a prior disciplinary history with the department and he cooperated fully with investigators. She also said then that while DOH does not have disciplinary authority over agencies, if investigators had turned up evidence of wrongdoing at VYFS, including if people knew of the relationship between Zheutlin and R.G. but turned a blind eye to it, officials would have investigated.
“If we had seen anything leading to that in our investigation, we would have pursued it, but obviously nothing made us believe it,” she said at the time.
Reached on Monday about the suit, Kelley said if the legal proceedings turn up new allegations or extra evidence of wrong-doing, the state might consider investigating further.
“If there is a finding, we would look to see if there is anything we did not look at,” she said.
She added that if state investigators had substantiated other infractions during their investigation, they would have acted on them.
“If there were (allegations) and we had evidence to our level of proof, we would have included them in the charges,” she said.
When his license was suspended last year, Zheutlin released a brief statement via email.
“Professionally, I made a big mistake with serious consequences. But personally, I chose to follow my heart and have never been happier. I have learned and grown personally and professionally through this situation, and I look forward to working in this community again soon,” he wrote, in part, at the time.
Zheutlin’s license was reinstated in February with conditions, including that he not engage in a solo practice for at least 18 months, that he work under a supervisor and that he attend counseling appointments. Zheutlin is not currently practicing, Krinsky said.