Civil lawsuits filed after families were harmed by fake psychologist now in prison.
A Virginia woman, Sharonda L. Avery, 44, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for treating 100 patients and families, mostly children, posing as a psychologist when, in fact, she was not. Prosecutors said Avery treated others from January 2013 until September 2017 at Pediatric Partners for Attention & Learning in Stafford where she posted fake doctoral diplomas in her office. Dr. Joni Johnson owned and operated the practice, which closed in 2020.
At least one of these families dried up all of their savings paying $10,000 for their child’s treatment, while many other families reported losing thousands of dollars in Avery’s scheme. They racked up emergency room and even jail expenses as a result of her threats and came back time and again to receive further treatment and support. Some even had their children on medication when it wasn’t necessary.
“One day my child was having a bad day. Just a tough day and didn’t want to go to school. [Avery] said, ‘You need to take her to the emergency room and if you don’t, I’m going to have you arrested for child neglect,’” Kelly Von Schwanitz remembers. The parents did go to the hospital where a physician told them Avery’s advice was “ridiculous.”
The family ended up being among one of those hundred that came forward with similar concerns of mistreatment. Another father who reported he was jailed for refusing to give his child drugs prescribed by the fake psychologist, and on several occasions, Avery appeared in court as an expert witness in child custody cases and participated in offering guidance for Individualized Education Program plans for three schools.
A school psychologist in Spotsylvania started to become suspicious of Avery’s instance that every child referred to her for treatment was autistic. The employee reported Avery to the Virginia Department of Health Professions, and the agency confirmed she was not licensed. However, she was able to continue practicing, according to prosecutors.
Stafford prosecutors said, “When state officials notified the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office, they did not take action. But in 2018, when suspicious parents started to complain, the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office assigned Detective Ed McCullough to investigate. He spent months building the record that led to the charges.”
Avery was charged with “obtaining money by false pretenses, passing a forged document, perjury and practicing psychology without a license.” Officials added at the time, “the perjury charge is related to allegations that Avery, who claimed to be a doctor, testified in Stafford Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in 2017.” She was ultimately sentenced to 46 years in prison three decades suspended after she was convicted of nine offenses.
The victims have filed four civil lawsuits seeking damages ranging from just over $1 million to $252 million. Dr. Joni Johnson and Aetna Health Insurance Co. are among the co-defendants named in the suit, which reads, “Johnson is liable for hiring Avery without verifying her credentials, and the insurance company is cited for not verifying Avery’s credentials before approving medications she prescribed.” They state further, “numerous patients, most of them children, suffered as the result of faulty diagnoses and medications that were prescribed for conditions that didn’t exist.”