A former client of Life Strategies founder and counselor Hamlet Smith reported Wednesday that Smith had inappropriately hugged her and urged her to remove her shirt during an emergency counseling session in March, a day after the death of her husband.
The woman is a professional with an advanced degree and the mother of two children. She said Wednesday that she is in the process of filing a formal complaint against Smith with the West Virginia Board of Social Work for the alleged incident, which occurred on March 28.
"I feel like that's my responsibility, to tell my story so other people know this does happen, and it's not right," she said.
Smith, 50, of Pax, operates the region's largest private provider of mental health services.
He was arrested Oct. 28 on charges in another case that he had made a criminal sexual advance against a woman on Oct. 22. Through his attorney, he has denied the latest allegations, pointing to his decades of service in the community as a family counselor to " hundreds, if not thousands.” The attorney had previously said his client was innocent of the felony charge resulting from his arrest last month.
The latest woman to come forward said she decided to file the complaint regarding the alleged March 28 incident in order to show support for the younger woman named in the criminal complaint by Beckley Police Department.
The criminal complaint alleges that Smith forcibly hugged and kissed the woman and had forcibly put his hand down her shirt during an early afternoon meeting in Smith's Mallard Court office on Oct. 22.
Identified in court documents as "CS," the woman reported to police that Smith had a firearm affixed to his ankle during the alleged incident, which caused her more alarm.
Following CS's complaint, Beckley Police Department officers arrested Smith on charge of first degree sexual abuse, a felony that carries a penalty of one to five years in prison and requires a lifetime registry as a sex offender.
Through his Beckley attorney, Gerald Hayden, Smith has denied criminal wrongdoing in his dealings with CS. Hayden said that Smith and CS's "versions of the story are different."
Hayden had also pointed out that, prior to CS's complaint, Smith had counseled thousands of local patients and had enjoyed an impeccable reputation in southern West Virginia.
The former Life Strategies client said Wednesday that Smith's positive professional reputation had initially made her fearful of filing a formal complaint against Smith, a licensed counselor who holds a master of social work degree.
"I wanted to come forward, but I thought, nobody's going to believe me," the former Life Strategies client said. "Because I'm a 'distraught woman.'
"After finding out his response to (CS), I knew that I had a duty to her, because I know how I felt —everybody else was going to believe him, somebody who has the good reputation in the community."
The 40-year-old woman, who is represented by Beckley attorney Stephen New, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her two children.
She told The Register-Herald that Smith had offered marital counseling to her and her now-deceased husband in 2011 and 2012. Both were professing Christians and active in church missions and ministry. When they needed guidance, they sought the same faith-based counseling that most in their church had sought.
Smith was recommended by many local pastors and professionals. In 2011, he had founded and was operating a thriving private counseling practice that incorporated universal Christian beliefs and some conservative doctrines that promoted the idea that males were in a position of "authority" in the home and at church.
The woman said the couple finished marital counseling around 2012. Her husband continued to see Smith for personal counseling.
On March 27, her husband — a man she described as a dedicated father and husband who fought a long battle with depression — fatally shot himself.
She had a strong faith in God. Many described her as a high achiever in the professional world. She loved her children and had a strong desire to help them navigate the emotions of their father's death.
On March 28, however, she said her own emotions felt overwhelming.
"I wanted to die," she said.
Her husband's close male friend had sought advice from a mental health counselor in Lewisburg on March 28. He told the woman that she also needed to see a counselor.
"I didn't want to leave my children," she recalled.
She reported that she kept thinking that there must have been "something" she could have done to stop her husband's death. She felt a compulsion to stay close to her children and a devastating sense of personal grief and loss.
Friends came to her house on March 28. When they also expressed concern that she was not coping well, she said she agreed to call Life Strategies.
"I told (the receptionist) I needed to get in quickly because my husband had killed himself, and he was a patient of Hamlet (Smith's), and I had already had an established relationship with Hamlet for counseling," she recalled. "So they worked me in."
Her late husband's friend drove her to the Life Strategies office, which was then in a building off Harper Road, outside of Beckley city limits, according to the woman. The two settled into Smith's counseling office, which had a chair and a sofa.
According to the woman, she settled on the sofa and began filling out paperwork, she said.
She alleged that Smith entered the counseling office and told them, "I hate my f****** job. Damn."
She said that Smith also "growled." She alleged that he would make the growling noise several times during the session.
"I began to talk, and (Smith) asked (the friend) and a female intern to step out," she reported. "As soon as the door shut, he said, 'Are you f****** him?
"The place where I was at that time — I felt like it was all my fault," she added, crying. "I felt like there was something I could've done to stop this."
The woman alleged that Smith repeated the question and that she responded, "No. He's my support system. He was with my husband. He was my husband's friend.
"I'm like, this is not really happening," she added, describing her state of mind.
The woman, who works with those needing acute care, said that Smith's alleged question was inappropriate for a client who was in an acute stress situation.
She added that Smith remained quiet after his alleged question and that, confused, she tried to get the session on track by telling him about her situation.
"He didn't ask anything," she said. "I just began to talk, because I needed somebody to help me.
"Throughout, I asked (if) there is anything (Smith) can do, is there something I can read? And his response is 'no.' "
The woman said Smith's office was chilly. She had not combed her hair and could not recall if she had brushed her teeth. She said she was dressed in jogging pants and a long shirt but still felt cold. Due to her emotional state, she was shaking and rocking back and forth while she sat in the office.
"I'm shaking," she said. "My hands are inside my shirt."
She alleged that Smith told her, "Take your shirt off."
"I said, 'Excuse me?' " she said. "He said, 'Take your shirt off."
The woman said she told Smith that she was cold.
She alleged that Smith stood and approached the sofa where she sat. She said he removed a blanket from the top of the sofa and placed it around her shoulders. She said that he returned to the chair and that she began to talk.
"There was a period of time that it was quiet," she added. "He didn't say anything. He laid back and growled."
She alleged that Smith then stood up, approached her, put his hand on her chin and titled her head upwards toward him and that he put his arms around her in a "front hug" and pressed her chest firmly against his own chest. She lowered her head instinctively, she reported. She said he stepped back briefly but then returned and pressed her into a full-frontal hug again.
She reported that the doorknob to the office door "jingled" at that moment, as if someone were accessing it. She alleged that Smith stepped away from her at the sound.
"He said, 'Oh, inappropriate contact with a patient,' " she charged. "Then he sat back down."
The woman said she left the office hurriedly, without making a co-pay or stopping at reception. She called the male friend who had given her a ride and told him the session was finished.
Once inside the friend's vehicle, she said she struck the dashboard and screamed.
"I was angry," she said. "I was shocked that that was what had happened. That's the treatment I received.
"It had just pushed me over," the woman said. "I felt like there was no hope."
Nobody from Life Strategies called to check on her mental state or to refer her to another counselor, she reported.
On March 29, she said that Smith called her cell phone while she was making funeral arrangements. A female friend who had accompanied her answered the call and told Smith not to call again, she alleged.
Since March, she said, she has focused on healing. She said she reported the alleged incident to various friends but avoided filing a formal complaint with state licensing authorities because she was focused primarily on her children's and her own recovery.
She said she did not intend to file criminal charges because she does not believe the contact legally qualifies as sexual abuse. She said she had fears that her emotional state on March 28 could be used to dismiss any claims she made to the state licensing board.
She added that Smith's arrest and CS's report emboldened her to file the complaint. She added that she decided to speak out when she learned that CS's claim was being dismissed by some, just as she had feared her own would be.
She said she has forgiven Smith but that she believes there should be "accountability."
Beckley attorney Stephen New of New Law Office said Wednesday that his firm now represents the woman.
"The plan is to pursue a civil legal action," he said. "We're investigating that right now.
"We also intend to file a complaint with the state social work board, on her behalf."
Hayden, the attorney who represents Smith, responded Wednesday evening to the civil allegation by New's client.
"Mr. Smith firmly denies the allegations as stated by this person," he said. "Mr. Smith has been a reputable family counselor in the community for decades and has helped hundreds, if not thousands, with their mental health needs.
"We find it concerning that claims like this were not ever made until such time Mr. Smith was accused of a crime, and it became known to the public through the media.
"Mr. Smith has due process rights afforded to him through the state board, governing his license. We expect him to contest such allegations, if and when there is a hearing," added Hayden.