Friday, April 13, 2012

Dr. Russell Hurst, Jr wants his licenses back in South Carlolina

SC sex offender dentist tries for full re-instatement

By JOHN MONK By John Monk -

A Sumter dentist convicted of child molestation and found to have possessed child pornography 12 years ago is trying to regain the privilege he once enjoyed of practicing dentistry without restrictions or reduced restrictions, including treating children as patients.

The case of Russell Hurst Jr. is now playing out in the S.C. Court of Appeals, where his lawyer is arguing in a legal brief that Hurst has in effect been pronounced rehabilitated by a behavioral expert and should be free of all restrictions placed upon him by the S.C. Board of Dentistry – restrictions that currently allow him freedom to oversee a Sumter dental practice but only see adult patients.

Whatever the court decides, Hurst’s case offers a rare window into how the state’s regulatory boards that oversee high-paying S.C. professions such as dentistry handle one of their own when it comes to child sex abuse issues.

In Hurst’s case, a Board of Dentistry lawyer is arguing that although Hurst may have made substantial progress in overcoming whatever led him to be a child sex offender, the rehabilitation rate for people who molest children and have possessed child pornography is low.

“Recidivism should always be a concern in a situation where a person with pedophilia and ... acts as a health care professional and owns the practice,” said a Board of Dentistry brief before the Court of Appeals.

Thus, the restrictions Hurst currently has – including not treating children, undergoing regular polygraph examinations, not prescribing sedatives and not using office computers – should continue, the Board of Dentistry argues.

Hurst’s attorney said neither Hurst nor the partner in his dental practice would comment about the case.

The Hurst case began in 2000, when he pleaded guilty to three counts of committing a lewd act upon a child and one county of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, according S.C. Board of Dentistry findings and criminal records. None of the acts were committed at the office, according to the documents.

At the time, Hurst was the operator of a successful Sumter dental clinic. Hurst’s offenses included being found with numerous images of graphic child pornography on his personal computers and a computer in his dental office, according to legal papers.

Judge Thomas W. Cooper sentenced Hurst to 10 years in prison but suspended the sentence to five years’ probation provided Hurst met certain conditions. Those conditions included not having any position of authority over children, successfully completing sex offender counseling and having no contact with his male victims.

In 2001, the S.C Board of Dentistry suspended Hurst’s license to practice dentistry for five years. Hurst was allowed to keep ownership of his dental practice, overseeing its management and hiring other dentists.

During that time, Hurst underwent multiple treatments with noted behavioral expert Dr. Gene Abel, who is head of the Behavioral Medicine Institute in Atlanta. That group specializes in the treatment of sexual problems that “have proven responsive to behavioral therapy or behavioral medicine,” according to its promotional literature on the Internet.

In 2006, the Dentistry Board – noting that Abel said Hurst had made substantial progress in his treatment – reinstated Hurst’s dental license with his current restrictions, including not treating children.

In making its decision, the board said it was balancing the need to protect the public with the public’s need for dental services from trained professionals.

In 2010, Abel notified the board that Hurst had successfully completed treatment and was no longer in need of therapy, monitoring or board supervision.

“Based upon my education and training and with reasonable medical and psychiatric certainty, I continue to believe he poses no threat to his patients and that he is no longer in need of continued therapy for his inappropriate sexual behavior with young boys,” Abel wrote the board in a Nov. 4, 2010, letter.

However, the board decided to continue the restrictions.

In February 2011, Hurst appealed the board’s restrictions to the Administration Law Court, a judicial body that handles appeals from regulatory boards.

In August 2011, Administrative Law Judge Deborah Durden upheld the board’s decision. She wrote that the board’s restrictions were “reasonable attempts to protect the public.”

In February, Hurst and his lawyer, Aaron Kozloski of Lexington, appealed Durden’s order to the Court of Appeals. That court has not yet set a date for a hearing.

Also in February, acting on a tip, a Board of Dentistry investigator went to Hurst’s office in Sumter. Investigator Kathy Meadows said she found evidence that Hurst was using a computer in his office and had also prescribed sedatives in violation of the board’s limitations.

Afterward, the Board of Dentistry filed a new motion with the Administrative Law Court, seeking to suspend Hurst’s license temporarily.

But in a hearing Thursday, Hurst’s lawyer Kozloski rebutted the investigator’s evidence, calling the investigator’s findings “thin.” After a 2½-hour hearing, Administrative Law Judge Ralph King Anderson made no ruling but said he would issue a written order at a later date.

In testimony and legal papers, Hurst’s practice in Sumter was described as quite busy. His practice, Wesmark Family Dentistry, employs 13 people, including another dentist who handles patients under 21. The two dentists and hygienists see from 30 to 35 patients daily.

The Dentistry Board is one of 43 state regulatory boards overseen by the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

These boards license professionals in fields ranging from architecture to medicine to contracting. They oversee standards and have the power to invoke disciplinary actions including reprimands, suspensions and revocations of licenses.

An LLR spokeswoman Thursday said all its 43 boards handled 16 cases of sexual misconduct in calendar year 2011 but had no breakdown of the statistics as to whether they involved molestation. No breakdown was available on actions taken.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.