BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — A former Idaho psychologist has been convicted of sexually assaulting patients in California, by pretending the sex acts were a mental health treatment.
Idaho’s psychologist licensing board permanently revoked Heath Sommer’s license on Nov. 4. But it wasn’t the first time Sommer was sanctioned — nor the first time he was accused of misdeeds.
Idaho authorities had previously accused him of ethical breaches between 2010 and 2013. One case ended in 2015 in Sommer’s favor, with fraud allegations against his agency dismissed. The other case resulted in a 2016 order for Sommer to get more ethics training.
While both cases were playing out in Idaho, Sommer was practicing as a psychologist at Travis Air Force Base and sexually assaulting his patients, according to public records and news reports.
Sommer was found guilty last year of sexually assaulting female patients between 2014 and 2016, under the guise of providing “exposure therapy” for prior sexual trauma, according to California news outlets. He was sentenced this year to 11 years in prison, The Mercury News reported and is now incarcerated in the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California
California prosecutors charged Sommer with rape, sexual battery and oral sex by fraud or “fraudulent representation” — meaning the victims were “unconscious of the nature of the act” due to Sommer’s claim that the acts served a “professional purpose” when they didn’t. They also charged him with multiple counts of sexual battery.
“Many of the Sommer’s alleged victims suffered sexual trauma while deployed to the Middle East or Afghanistan,” said a 2018 story in the Vacaville Reporter. “He reportedly practiced a version of exposure therapy that encourages the sex assault victims to purge harmful emotions related to the crimes by having sex with him.”
Exposure therapy is an established form of psychological treatment for patients such as veterans and service members who have post-traumatic stress that uses exposure in safe settings to slowly lessen the negative reaction to a traumatic event.
Exposure therapy has been used to treat sexual assault victims, but it does not involve re-enacting the trauma.
“It involves having patients repeatedly tell their awful stories, and then visit safe places that remind them of the trauma or take part in safe activities they’d avoided because of painful reminders,” according to a 2013 Associated Press story on the psychologists using exposure therapy with rape victims.
The Air Force base hospital hired Sommer through a contractor in 2014, and he treated more than 100 patients before he was suspended in 2016, the Vacaville Reporter said.
“I apologize… I never intended to be offensive to people,” Sommer told the judge at his sentencing in July, according to The Mercury News. He also told the judge he had “no intent to disparage any victims,” the newspaper reported.
Allegations before the sexual assaults
Heath Sommer first became a licensed psychologist in Idaho in 2009, according to state licensing records.
Sommer and his mental health agency, Seasons of Hope, made headlines until 2015 over its battle with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in connection to allegations of fraudulent billing and other misdeeds.
Sommer owned Seasons of Hope between at least May 2010 and March 2013, according to public records.
The department in 2013 accused Seasons of Hope of fraudulent billing and effectively shut it down — taking away its ability to seek payments from Medicaid and ordering it to pay the state nearly $500,000.
Seasons of Hope closed offices in southern and eastern Idaho, and the company filed for bankruptcy, according to various news reports.
Over the next two years, Seasons of Hope’s case went before officials and a judge. They ruled that Seasons of Hope did owe the state money but dismissed fraud allegations and penalties. The judge called the department’s sanctions against Season of Hope “arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion,” the Idaho State Journal reported in 2015.
A year after that ruling, Sommer once again came under scrutiny — this time, for crossing ethical boundaries.
The Idaho Board of Psychologist Examiners, which oversees licensing of Idaho psychologists, issued an order in 2016 that said Sommer had violated ethics rules.
The board said employees of Sommer’s mental health agency had “provided a significant amount of services to two of (Sommer’s) sons” between May 2010 and March 2013. “At the same time (his) sons were receiving services from (his) employees, (he) was also the registered supervisor for six of the providers, which created dual relationships.”
Sommer settled the board’s complaint, agreeing to pay about $2,746 for the board’s investigative costs and attorneys fees, and to complete at least six extra continuing education credits on the topic of “ethics and dual relationships.” He did not admit any guilt or wrongdoing.
There was no board action against his license after that.