Parenting Place charity cuts ties with counsellor over sexuality conversion therapy

David Riddell says he has been ‘thrown under the bus’ by the well-known parenting organisation, which listed him as an approved counsellor despite his therapeutic practice with children whom he believes have been ‘sent in a same-sex direction’ by their parents. Emily Writes reports.

Parenting Place, one of New Zealand’s largest support networks for parents and children, has distanced itself from a counsellor who offers conversion therapy, a practice aimed at young people which attempts to change their sexuality or gender identity. The counsellor, David Riddell, is the founder of Nelson’s Living Wisdom School of Counselling, a Christian counselling service and training centre. According to Living Wisdom’s website, Riddell is trained in theology, psychology and pastoral care.

Riddell denies that his counselling constitutes conversion therapy.

“Parenting Place do not support conversion therapy,” said a spokesperson in a statement responding to questions from The Spinoff. “We have a historic list of counsellors from around Aotearoa on our website – thanks for bringing to our attention that Living Wisdom is listed here. Based on their position on this issue, we will remove them from our website today and we will take the opportunity to review all of the services we have listed there.”

Last night references to Riddell and his author page on the Parenting Place website had been removed.

In the statement, Parenting Place said its teen health programme Attitude had no links with Living Wisdom. “We have had presenters attend the Soul Tour course, which does draw from some Living Wisdom ideas. From our experience Soul Tour do not support or promote conversion therapy. However, in light of Soul Tour’s relationship with Living Wisdom we will be reviewing our relationship with Soul Tour as well.”

Attitude is a Parenting Place health programme for intermediate and high school students. Soul Tour, meanwhile, calls itself “the young adults version of Living Wisdom” and is “an intensive course for young adults, focused on holistic personal development”. The website says the curriculum “draws upon Christian-friendly insights from a variety of fields. These include psychology, philosophy, counselling and theology”.

There is extensive evidence of the damaging effects of conversion and reparitive therapy and no sound scientific evidence that innate sexual orientation can be changed. The practice has been condemned by most mainstream counselling and psychiatric organisations including The World Psychiatric Association and the New Zealand Association of Counselling.

The NZ Association of Counselling considers the promotion or practice of conversion therapy to be in breach of its ethical standards. Such an approach “perpetuates social injustice and discrimination while also being ineffectual, potentially very harmful, and not grounded in legitimate therapeutic practice”, says the association.

It defines conversion therapy as “a pseudoscientific practice or treatment that seeks to change, suppress, and/or eliminate an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity and, or gender expression, using psychological and/or spiritual interventions”.

Riddell is not listed as a member of the association.

Parenting Place is well known among New Zealand parents for a range of courses including SPACE baby and marriage counselling. The organisation works with The Parents Centre, is involved in Best Start ECE Centres and operates in almost every high school in New Zealand. Registered as a charity, it runs youth camps, marriage retreats, seminars and young leaders events.

While Parenting Place is not an overtly Christian organisation, its site notes that it “was founded in 1993 by Ian and Mary Grant who were compelled by their deep Christian faith”.

Riddell says Parenting Place’s response is kowtowing to pressure. When reached by phone, he said he had “supported the Parenting Place and they have supported me right up until they got complaints from the rainbow community and now they’ve thrown me under the bus.”

The Spinoff is unaware of any complaints from the rainbow community.

He continued: “John Cowan [former Parenting Place speaker/presenter] is a long-time friend, Dave Atkinson [CEO of Parenting Place] is a long-time friend, Mary and Ian Grant – I helped them set up the Parenting Place in the first place so that’s all been very distressing. So thanks, media, thanks very much.

“Ian and Mary and I go way back. Both have done my training repeatedly. And Ian attributes much of their material, some of their material, to my principles. They’ve both done and approved of my courses. I have no issue there.”

Riddell maintains Parenting Place, “from the leadership down”, supports him. “I’ve trained a lot of their staff but you will find they’ve thrown me under the bus to retain acceptance from the secular community.”

From his base in Nelson, Riddell provides clients with the option to Skype or to “fly in/fly out” for sessions at Living Wisdom School of Counselling. The college itself offers a seminar on “sexuality and brokenness” that looks at “the formation of erotic desire, the destructive phenomena of premature ‘imprinting’ at too early an age, and the skills necessary to help in the healing of our broken sexual identity”.

A screengrab from TVNZ’s 2018 investigation, ‘Pray the Gay Away’

In 2018, Living Wisdom’s practices were the subject of an undercover investigation by TVNZ’s Sunday programme. Riddell dismisses the story, titled “Pray the Gay Away”, as a “witch hunt”. He insists that his anti-homosexuality counselling does not amount to conversion therapy.

“I don’t call it conversion therapy. No counsellor properly trained does ‘conversion therapy’ because it implies coercion.” He insists the counselling he offers is under the control of the person or child he is counselling.

“I offer same sex-orientated people the possibility and option of exploring heterosexuality as an authentic expression of their own sexuality, and any counsellor should be able to do that as part of their normal business of exploring options.”

He says that in his 30 years of practice he has seen people go from “homosexual to heterosexual”. He rejects the idea that that means you could also be counselled from “heterosexual to homosexual”, instead suggesting people have “feminine and masculine energy” that must be balanced. For example, a lesbian would be a woman who has masculine energy “and seeks masculine energy in another girl”, he says. He believes this issue originates in childhood: “if parents screw up they can send their children in a same-sex direction.”

The youngest children brought to Riddell are around six or seven, he says. As examples of the types of children he might “counsel”, he describes a hypothetical boy who wants to “imitate his mother and that makes him the focus of attention that’s dangerous” and a girl “who can only relate to her dad if she acts like a tomboy and gets acceptance from him when she acts a tomboy.

“Those are the red flags,” he says. “And I see it all around me. I see it everywhere I go.”

Riddell says if a homosexual person sees him and subsequently becomes heterosexual “that’s a free choice”. He does not agree that a heterosexual person becoming homosexual is also a free choice.

He also rejects the idea that there is a power imbalance between him and his child clients, arguing that they can “push back”.

At the core of his counselling is the belief that to be a full and healthy person you must be heterosexual. “I consider same sex orientation to be the result of childhood misadventure and duress,” he says.

At the foot of Riddell’s webpage sits a rainbow banner that says “Truth Coaches”. Clicking through brings you to another of Riddell’s counselling webpages. And a testimonial:

“David is sitting on the best goldmine of wisdom I know of. This video series is a new tunnel into that rich seam of knowledge. Everyone who takes the time to do a little digging will come away immensely richer.” John Cowan – The Parenting Place.

Asked about it by The Spinoff, Cowan, a broadcaster with Newstalk ZB, said the testimonial was old. He was emphatic that he does not support conversion therapy. “I think it’s totally ineffective and harmful and not necessary at all.” He said he did not stand by the testimonial if Riddell was endorsing conversion therapy.

“It’s been decades literally since I’ve been familiar with David’s stuff. That’s an old quote from when I was still with The Parenting Place, which I’m not with now. I would endorse his good stuff but I couldn’t endorse stuff that I don’t agree with … I might have to see about taking that endorsement down if he’s going down that track.”

Cowan supports the ban on conversion therapy announced by Labour earlier this week, a policy also backed by the Greens, the Māori Party and The Opportunities Party.

“The planet has spun a few too many times for [conversion therapy] to have a place in the world now. You go back to the 70s and 80s and you’d have a divergence of medical opinion on homosexuality but that’s now decades in the past. People who are digging their toes in and holding onto some old ideas and find themselves out of step. Well they’ve always been out of step with reality, but out of step with society.”

Riddell said he wouldn’t be surprised if Cowan asked for his testimonial to be removed. “But he’s done my training, he agreed with all of it and loved it, and it’s just the influence of the rainbow community. It’s preposterous.”

He says Parenting Place might be trying to distance itself from him “but if you talk to them personally they have nothing against my services or work at all”.

According to its 2019 annual report, Parenting Place received $608,169 in funding from the Ministry of Development last year, an increase from 2018.

CEO Greg Fleming says the goal of the organisation is to see “every child to be deeply loved and every person to be truly known”.



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