Daniel Staats, the Dalton, Ga., Christian counselor accused of sexually assaulting a client, pleaded guilty Tuesday.
Staats, who ran Helping the Hurting and filled in as a guest pastor in a local church, was accused of fondling a client's breast, exposing himself and receiving oral sex during a July 2017 visit, according to a Dalton police report. He was arrested in December, and a grand jury indicted him on four counts of sexual assault by a psychotherapist in February.
Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston said Staats pleaded guilty to one of those counts, receiving a 20-year sentence. He will serve two of those years behind bars and be on probation for the rest. He also must register as a sex offender, and Poston said he can no longer work as a counselor.
After Staats' arrest in December, other women came forward to the police department and accused him of acting inappropriately. But, police spokesman Bruce Frazier said earlier this year, the offenses most of the women described were not crimes.
One woman told the Times Free Press that Staats tried to probe into intimate details of her past sexual abuse and insisted she give him a hug. Another woman said Staats sent messages to her on Facebook after a session, asking her to share with him her sexual fantasies and suggesting they swap partners.
Before his arrest, Staats operated without state oversight. Because he worked as a Christian counselor, he was not licensed with the Georgia Composite Board of Professional Counselors, Social Workers and Marriage and Family Therapists.
State law allows counselors to work without a license if they say their work is rooted in biblical doctrine, meaning an oversight board could not discipline Staats if a client complained that he harassed her. The intention of the law is mostly for pastors, who often find themselves counseling members of their church as a standard part of their day. But as a result of the law, Staats did not have to attend ethics training, as secular counselors do.
As a nonprofit organization, Helping the Hurting allowed clients to pay whatever amount they could afford. This was appealing to some clients when a judge ordered them to see a counselor as a condition of their sentences.
Said Melissa Beavers, who visited him 11 years ago: "If you don't go back to [Staats], it's not like, 'You don't get your therapy.' If you don't go to him, you're going to jail. If you don't go to him, you're not going to get your kids back. This isn't these agencies telling him that, per se, that you have to go to him. But when they hear 'Free services' to complete a case plan, to complete probation, to complete parole, they're going to accept those free services and deal with whatever comes with it."
Jenna Overby, a former client of Staats' who said he pursued a sexual relationship with her, told the Times Free Press on Tuesday that the guilty plea is not the end of the case. She wants to end the loophole for Christian counselors. She does not believe such counselors should be required to attend ethics training or receive a certain credential, but that they should be registered with the state board.
She said clients should then be able to file complaints, and the board should be able to investigate counselors such as Staats for ethical lapses - even if they don't rise to the level of crimes.
She and other former clients, as well as other members of the community who never saw Staats, have formed a Facebook group to oppose the law. She hopes to present a proposal to local state representatives this year.
"Staats was convicted of sexual assault based on his actions with one person," Overby said. "He had other accusers, including myself, that have no opportunity for justice. There is a hole in the law that will still allow a convicted sexual predator to work as a Christian counselor."
On Tuesday, nobody returned a voicemail left at the listed number for Helping the Hurting. Staats' work email, meanwhile, has been disabled.
In January, when asked about the mounting accusations from former clients, Staats told the Times Free Press in an email, "Problem with helping people with their issues is confidentiality. They can say whatever, take stuff out of context, and say half-truths; but the only way to defend the truth would be to break confidentiality."
Staats' attorney, Marcus Morris, did not return an email or call seeking comment Tuesday.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.