Nowhere to turn? Accuser of Dalton Christian counselor shares her story
Trapped, with nowhere to turn for help. That's how one former patient of a Dalton counselor says she felt, when sexual messages starting showing up in her inbox, from the man who knew her deepest, darkest secrets.
Dalton police say 10 former patients now accuse Daniel Staats of sending them inappropriate, sexual messages online, but he's only facing one criminal charge. That's because police say the contact only became physical with one woman.
"I trusted Daniel to provide help, and I was in a world of trouble." Jenna Overby says she saw Daniel Staats for years as she battled mental health issues. "He had a glowing reputation in the community, my pastor trusted him."
In 2010, Overby attended the First Church of the Nazarene in Dalton. She was tight on cash, a specialty of Helping the Hurting. "His service was based on what you could pay, he treated some people for free."
It took years, but after the topic of sex came up in a session, Overby says the man who knew her deepest, darkest secrets sent her a Facebook message. She gave us some of those messages, sent from a now-deleted Facebook account.
Overby says, they came to her and her husband. "He offered me nude photos of his wife... and asks us both to participate in sexual fantasies online."
After Staats' criminal charge came to light in December, she showed these same messages to Dalton police. "I was able to determine there was nothing criminal there," says Detective Christopher Tucker. He says Overby's story matched those of almost a dozen other patients who have now come forward.
And this 20 year veteran investigator had the same problem as the people he considers vulnerable victims. "There was definitely something unethical going on," Tucker says.
"And we didn't know who to tell about it."
That's because Georgia law provides no regulation for Christian counselors like Staats. State law does not require a license as long as a Christian counselor engages in "the practice of a specialty in accordance with Biblical doctrine."
Meaning no board to review complaints, no way to strip a license, and no database to keep up with the people seeing patients. "I think he was shrouded in an unlicensed dark area, his clients didn't know each other, he wasn't leading a church. He was running what was supposed to be a legitimate counseling service."
Dalton Police say Staats also got clients from a behavioral class the court required of some offenders. Detective Tucker says that class was only available in Dalton from one person: Daniel Staats.
"He's got degrees on the wall and I'm on probation, who is going to believe me?" Tucker says, explaining why Staats' accusers told police they didn't come forward at first. "And that's the heartbreaking thing for me is they felt like they could not go to someone."
Overby says she came to us for one reason, hoping to speak up for others too afraid to break their silence and somehow close this loophole in the law. "Our community could pressure the state legislature to change laws regarding licensure or some regulatory system that would eliminate the double standard, that would prevent this behavior by counselors in any setting."
She also wants to make sure one thing never happens. "Even if Daniel is convicted on other charges not related to me, he may still be able to go back to work as a Christian counselor. That shouldn't happen."
Because according to the chairman of Georgia's Composite Board of Professional Counselors it could. Dr. Steve Livingston told us, "If you don't have a regulatory board, who's going to stop you?" Watch the second part of our special investigation below.
We reached out to Daniel Staats several times to get his side of the story. When we went by this office, another man inside was packing it up. We finally reached him by phone and he said he's not guilty of the criminal charge, and the other conversations were quote "taken out of context." The Whitfield County District Attorney's office says Staats' case has not been heard by the grand jury. We'll let you know when that happens and the outcome.
And what about Overby's request of Georgia lawmakers to close this gap in the law? We reached out to the Dalton area's state representative, Kasey Carpenter who gave us a statement saying"rest assured nobody wants to hear about this happening but the assumption that a license or permit would have prevented it is a stretch."
Senator Chuck Payne, who represents the Dalton area, says there is a concern about the state over regulating churches but he would look in to possible changes for counselors who, like Daniel Staats, are not affiliated with or working under a specific church. We will keep you updated.
During our investigation, we also discovered that there is a Board of Examiners for Georgia Christian counselors and Therapists. Dr. Jack Kelly, who is chairman of that board, says this board is completely voluntary and they can only review complaints on counselors or therapists who have already chosen to join. Kelly said Staats is not a member of that organization and when asked about the the investigation, Kelly said, "If you're doing it in the name of God, that's worse than horrible."