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A psychiatric nurse has been suspended after she formed a personal and intimate relationship with a “highly vulnerable” patient and then lied about it to authorities.
Jaclyn Stratton was working in regional Victoria, Australia when she began a six-month relationship with a patient under her care.
The relationship included regular personal contact, social activities, intensely personal text messages using false names, and sex, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal was told.
Ms. Stratton told her manager her relationship with the patient had become compromised, sparking an investigation.
But when interviewed, she lied about the nature of the relationship, its length and extent of interactions she had with the patient.
She said it was a friendship that had ceased, but it was “clear the patient was far from accepting that the relationship had to cease”, the tribunal said.
In her latest statement to the Nursing Board, she said when she tried to end the relationship, the patient threatened suicide.
Ms. Stratton’s employer accepted her false statements and apology, and gave her a warning and an education paper to complete.
But she involved the patient in writing it, in what the tribunal deemed an “aggravating” factor.
Her employer only learned of the true nature of the relationship when the patient reported it.
“In short, she lied about the nature, extent, and duration of the relationship, preventing (her employer) from taking urgently needed action to protect the welfare and best interests of a highly vulnerable patient,” the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal said in its ruling on Thursday.
Ms. Stratton was aware of the vulnerability of the patient, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, chronic suicidal ideation with self-harming behaviors.
After the Board was notified of the conduct, the nurse described feeling “trapped and terrified.”
She described her fear that the patient would self-harm as the reason she continued the relationship and after she ceased it, she said she continued phone contact because “she was afraid of what might happen”.
But the tribunal said the fact she had those concerns made it even more important that she disclose the true situation to her employer.
“Complete honesty was essential and urgent. This ought to have been obvious to her,” the tribunal said.
“By concealing the truth, Ms. Stratton put self-protection first and the needs of the patient last.”
The tribunal rejected her explanation that her conduct took place because she believed she was too empathetic and this made her unsuitable for mental health nursing.
But it accepted she “deeply regrets” what happened.
In her evidence, she described her conduct as “horrible, utterly atrocious behavior, that she thinks about every day, and can’t forgive herself for”.
The nurse, who now works as a midwife, was found to have engaged in professional misconduct for breaching professional boundaries and providing false and misleading information.
She was suspended for three months and has training and monitoring conditions placed on her registration, to be reviewed in 12 months.
“The breaches evident here are serious matters for any nurse or health professional who cares for patients, and particularly so where the patient may be vulnerable,” VCAT senior member Elisabeth Wentworth and health practitioners Mary Archibald and Pamela Barry said in their ruling.
“In mental health or psychiatric care, such breaches are recognized to have the potential to do greater harm.
“That harm was realized in this case.”