Patients who loaned therapist thousands await repayments

Buckhead therapist Colleen Higgins' office phone is disconnected. Her condo is in foreclosure. She faces state tax liens totaling more than $10,000.

This in spite of the hundreds of thousands of dollars former clients and friends say they loaned to Higgins, only to see her disappear.

The mounting civil cases against Higgins have attracted the attention of the Atlanta Police Department, which is investigating the former patients' claims that they were defrauded by a licensed professional they once trusted.

"We're still trying to determine if a crime has been committed, but it certainly looks suspicious," said APD Det. Jeff Owens.

The detective said simply defaulting on a loan isn't a criminal matter, but deceiving clients by concocting elaborate stories and then disappearing with large sums of their money might be.

He knows of at least seven people who say they each loaned thousands to her and remain unpaid, he said.

Repeated efforts to reach Higgins for comment were unsuccessful this week. It's unclear if she is still living in Atlanta, though many believe she is. She isn't taking calls or responding to e-mails, all involved say, and she hasn't attended any court proceedings.

Records show she has been a licensed counselor in Georgia since 2004 and practiced out of an office at Ivy Place in Buckhead.

Fulton County Superior Court documents also show that her Midtown condo is in foreclosure proceedings and she has state tax liens totaling more than $10,000.

Former patients and friends allege that Higgins took advantage of them by gaining their trust and then persuading them to lend her thousands of dollars.

Avital Zukerman, 32, began seeing Higgins in 2006 and said the therapist helped her navigate painful periods of her life. But then on Nov. 20, 2008, according to court documents in a Fulton County lawsuit Zukerman filed, Higgins called to say she urgently needed to borrow money because her ailing mother in Nebraska was in danger of being evicted from a nursing home.

"She said it was a matter of life and death," Zukerman said.

The Smyrna woman wrote Higgins a check for $15,000 the same day. According to their promissory note, the therapist said she'd repay Zukerman within three weeks and insisted on paying an additional $5,000.

Zukerman said she knew it was inappropriate for her therapist to ask for a loan, but explained she felt obligated to help her because of the support Higgins had provided in therapy.

"As soon as I lent her the money, I knew something was wrong," Zukerman said.

Three weeks turned into months of excuses and then unreturned calls, text messages and letters, she said.

"I was beside myself with embarrassment. I didn't tell anybody at first," Zukerman said. "I adored her. I looked up to her. I thought she could do no wrong. I feel so stupid and taken advantage of now."

Zukerman filed a complaint with the Georgia Board of Professional Counselors; in her letter, she wrote "because [Higgins] knew how loved ones had used me in the past, I felt confident that she would never wrong me."

The board does not acknowledge or comment on pending complaints.

However, state ethics rules for licensed counselors describe unprofessional behavior as exploiting relationships with clients for personal or financial advantage and creating a conflict of interest that would compromise the therapy.

Psychologist Yared Alemu, assistant director for programming at the Georgia State University Counseling and Testing Center, said he'd never heard of a mental health provider requesting loans from clients. If true, Higgins' actions are a "horrific" violation of the ethics code, he said.

"People come to therapy because they are vulnerable; the first thing you do is no harm," he said.

He explains that despite the obvious red-flags, it's not surprising that some would loan money as the therapist-client relationship is based on trust.

"It can take awhile for someone to realize what is happening to them, especially if they are systematically being taken advantage of," he said.

Earlier this year, a Fulton County court found Higgins had defrauded Zukerman and that the therapist breached her fiduciary duties by failing to act in the best interest of the client to whom she provided mental health care by asking for a cash loan. Damages will be determined later this month, said Adam Jaffe, Zukerman's attorney.

Zukerman also filed a warrant application with a Fulton County magistrate court, but that was dismissed as the judge deemed it a civil issue, she said.

Jaffe, however, believes Higgins needs to be in jail.

"Multiple people and hundreds of thousands [of dollars] are involved. This isn't a civil case anymore. This is criminal," he said.

Attorney David Lilenfeld represents four plaintiffs, including Melissa and Luke Pope.

According to their suit, the Popes said they loaned Higgins, a former friend, $90,000 in 2007. Higgins promised to repay them double by the end of the year.

Higgins claimed to need the money for her sister to pursue a lawsuit in Nebraska and said her sister was to be awarded $30 million from the settlement.

According to court records, Higgins also altered court documents to support her story. The Popes have yet to see their money returned. They sued Higgins for breach of contract, fraud and punitive damages.

Last month, they were awarded $360,000 in unpaid loans and punitive damages in a civil suit filed in Fulton County, money Lilenfeld said it's unlikely his clients will see.

"I'm hopeful that between our efforts and that of law enforcement we can stop her spending before it's all gone," he said. "[This kind of case] is extremely uncommon when you consider she's a therapist ... swindlers and cheats are all over the place, but rarely do they put their whole livelihood on the line."

Lilenfeld said his clients' combined loans total nearly $120,000.

Emmy Weber, a former friend of Higgins, filed a civil suit against her in April after loaning her $50,000 in August 2008. The case is now pending in a Fulton County Superior Court.

Weber's husband, Stephen, said the couple was shocked by what he described as uncharacteristic behavior by Higgins. He declined comment on the legal case and said they're focused on making sure their long-time friend is OK.

"We are concerned about her health and we want to see she gets the help she needs so she can get plugged back into society."