Brantford-area social worker who counsels 1st responders is accused of sexual abuse by regulatory body

Warning: This story contains details of an alleged sexual encounter.

A Brantford, Ont-area social worker whose clients include first responders dealing with trauma faces allegations of professional misconduct and sexual abuse after an investigation by the professional college.

Laura Dowler is accused of alleged incidents over a four-year period, the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW) says in a report following its months-long investigation.

The college alleges Dowler used her "position of authority to coerce, improperly influence, harass, abuse or exploit" clients between 2019 and 2022, despite knowing they were experiencing mental health challenges.

The college determined the alleged incidents involved four clients who were counselled by Dowler at her private practice, Grand River Counselling, in Paris west of Brantford. The report does not say what prompted the college's investigation.

The discipline committee will hear the case in the coming months. A date has not yet been set.

Dowler denies the allegations and declined to comment further as the matter is before the discipline committee, her lawyer, Daniel Libman, told CBC Hamilton.

Social worker still on the job

The college's investigation is outside of any possible criminal proceedings. Brantford police said they are not actively investigating. They did not confirm if they've received complaints.

In the meantime, Dowler is allowed to continue her social work, after entering into a voluntary agreement this month that she'll be overseen by a supervisor and will let the college know where she's working, according to the college's website.

An online profile says Dowler works with clients experiencing mental health, relationship, complex trauma and dissociation issues, and specializes in clients who work as first responders. Last year, she was featured as a guest speaker at a "front-line mental health" conference organized in Brantford for police officers, paramedics and firefighters.

Dowler works with first responders, such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics, struggling with trauma.
Dowler works with first responders, such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics, struggling with trauma. (Louis Roth/Shutterstock)

Dowler was an instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University's department of social work for this past school year, according to its website. A spokesperson said the university declined to comment on the investigation and Dowler is not currently teaching there.

The OCSWSSW told CBC Hamilton that any sexual contact between social workers and clients is "strictly forbidden."

"Violating professional boundaries and engaging in sexual abuse is an extremely serious form of professional misconduct," said college spokesperson Sarah Choudhury in an email.

If the discipline committee finds a social worker engaged in professional misconduct, penalties could range from a reprimand to revoking the individual's registration and ability to practise.

Clients included married couple

Two of Dowler's clients were married in 2019 when she agreed to counsel them individually and also oversee their couple sessions conducted by another therapist, according to the college discipline committee's report.

The man and woman are called Client A and Client B, respectively, in the report, which keeps the clients' identities confidential.

Dowler "engaged in sexual abuse and/or boundary-violating behaviours" with Client A without his consent, alleges the college. Dowler hugged and kissed him and rubbed his genitals through his clothing, it adds.

The college alleges Dowler went to his home late one night and wouldn't leave for hours, despite being asked. Dowler allegedly told him that if he tried to end counselling with her and didn't allow her to sexually touch him, he would be "deprived of support" and lose work benefits, the report says.

Client B previously filed a complaint against Dowler with the college in 2021, alleging Dowler was in a conflict of interest when she provided them both with individual counselling as well as overseeing their couple's counselling, among other issues, the report says.

The college decided not to refer those allegations to the discipline committee because no other complaints had ever been filed against Dowler, and she had taken steps to "mitigate" the concern, according to their decision in 2022. It was therefore not made public, but was kept on her file.

The college's report included a response letter from Dowler to Client B. Dowler denied the allegations and said she had Client B's "best interest at heart." She said she "kept everything separate" during the course of Client A's and B's counselling, and treated them "as individuals with no attachment to the other."

While investigating the most recent allegations, the college said, it found Dowler had discussed the 2021 complaint with Client A and what information he was going to provide to investigators. The college alleges Dowler used her position of authority to "coerce, improperly influence and exploit Client A."

CBC Hamilton spoke to Client B and agreed to keep her identity confidential due to the ongoing proceedings at the college and to not identify Client A — an alleged victim of sexual abuse by Dowler — without his permission.

Client B said Dowler's alleged conduct caused her immense stress and had a "brutal" impact on her mental health and marriage, which ended in divorce.

"The impacts are very far reaching," Client B said.  "You throw a stone in the pond and there's a ripple effect."

Committee hearing date to be posted later

The college also alleges Dowler had inappropriate relationships with a third person, referred to as Clients C in the report. She also failed to ensure she hadn't "exploited, coerced or manipulated intentionally or unintentionally" a fourth person, Client D.

Dowler knew of Client C's substance use, mental health concerns and difficulties in his marriage, according to the college. The report says Dowler would often have two-hour sessions with him and they engaged in a months-long sexual relationship.

It also says Client D was struggling with emotional issues, stress and anger while receiving counselling from Dowler, and that she violated boundaries by exchanging texts and gifts.

With these clients, Dowler had incomplete clinical records that didn't include the text messages exchanged, clinical assessments or treatment plans, the college says. She also allegedly provided deleted and altered text messages to the college investigator.

The college told CBC Hamilton it first attempts to negotiate an agreement before setting a hearing date, which will be posted to its website.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there:

For anyone who has been sexually assaulted, support is available through crisis lines and local support services via this government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.