The Texas Medical Board on Tuesday temporarily suspended the medical license of a child psychiatrist accused of sexually abusing his mentally ill patients. Documents filed as part of the board’s decision show that Dr. Charles Fischer was accused of abuse by at least nine youths, a number higher than previously reported, and added details about the allegations.
In its unscheduled hearing, the medical board ordered Fischer to stop practicing medicine until further notice because he presented “a continuing threat to the public welfare.” Texas Medical Board spokeswoman Leigh Hopper described the action as similar to a temporary restraining order.
“It’s definitely an extreme measure,” she said. “You have to have a certain level of evidence.”
Although Fischer has not been charged with any crime, four law enforcement agencies are conducting a joint investigation into his case: the Texas Rangers, the attorney general’s office, the Austin Police Department and the Office of Inspector General for the Health and Human Services Commission.
His lawyer, Antonio Cobos , did not return calls Tuesday. He has said previously that Fischer “vehemently” denies all the claims against him.
Hopper said that the board takes such action about a dozen times a year, typically when a physician has a substance abuse problem or has been criminally charged.
During the hearing, a three-member panel makes “findings of fact,” which, while based on evidence presented to the panel, are not considered the same as facts in a court of law. Fischer will be given the chance to appeal the ruling.
Fischer, 59 , is accused of sexually abusing children while working at Austin State Hospital. After a five-month investigation, the state Department of Family and Protective Services told hospital officials in October that it had confirmed two cases of sexual abuse against hospital patients. The agency, which investigates claims of abuse in state facilities, terms a case “confirmed” if the preponderance of evidence indicates the allegations are true.
During the investigation, Fischer was permitted to continue working with children. Supervisors restricted his conduct with patients, ordering him not to, among other things, touch any patients or provide counseling behind closed doors. When the protective services agency confirmed the two abuse cases in October, Fischer was immediately placed on leave and fired Nov. 14.
The two cases are the only ones that the protective services agency has confirmed to date.
The medical board’s order added new details to a case in which specifics have so far been scarce because of the sensitivity of the allegations and patient privacy laws.
According to the medical board’s order of temporary suspension, seven Austin State Hospital patients between the ages of 13 and 17 made allegations against Fischer between 2001 and 2006 . A Travis County grand jury heard accusations of sexual abuse of a child against Fischer in 2002 but did not bring charges against him.
An eighth accusation described in medical board documents came from 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.
“We have no formal record of him working at Waco Center for Youth, but we think (Austin State Hospital) informally loaned him to the center on a part-time basis for a period of time in the early 1990s ,” said Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Department of State Health Services, which oversees the hospitals. “We are looking into it.”
A ninth patient accused Fischer of abuse when he was working at the Southwest Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Antonio, the order said. Although the order does not identify a year, Fischer worked at the center from 1982 to 1984 as a child psychiatry resident, according to licensing documents filed with the medical board.
Some patients had been sexually abused by family members, according to the suspension order. A prepared statement issued by the board said all of them were male.
The board’s order has graphic descriptions of the purported sexual abuse. Most involve fondling and oral sex.
“These allegations are, frankly, devastating to us,” Williams said.
The order also said the incidents occurred in Fischer’s office, where, according to the medical board documents, he shut and locked the door when seeing patients.
In response to the unfolding case against Fischer, state officials late last week released new rules for mental health professionals at the state hospital. Those mandates include keeping therapy doors unlocked during sessions and only providing individual treatment services in rooms with windows or other locations where professionals can be directly observed by other employees.
The department also ruled that staffers under investigation for sexual abuse must be transferred to another unit or placed on emergency leave.
Fischer also has worked for other mental health organizations, the medical board order shows: Central Counties MHMR, which, according to its website, provides mental health services to five Central Texas counties; and Lutheran Social Services, an Austin-based nonprofit group that runs residential treatment centers for troubled children.
Lutheran Social Services spokesman Scott Carroll said that Fischer was never an employee but a contractor who provided psychiatric services to youths at its Canyon Lake and Corpus Christi facilities.
Carroll said records show Fischer worked for the nonprofit before 1999; however, it doesn’t have details because those records have since been destroyed. None of the current employees at those residential treatment centers worked there at the time, he said.
“We know of no evidence in our possession that would indicate any wrongdoing of any kind by Dr. Fischer while he was at our facilities,” Carroll said.
Source: Andrea Ball and Eric Dexheimer, “Psychiatrist’s license suspended; medical board cites up to 9 claims of child sex abuse,” Austin American-Statesman, November 22, 2011.