By ART AISNER
The Ann Arbor News
Thomas Higgins doesn't fit the typical profile of a criminal, much less a sexual predator.
His advantaged upbringing, advanced academic degrees, strong family support and established career in one of the University of Michigan Health System's reputed programs all point to an exemplary life, Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Melinda Morris said Monday.
But they also set the stage for a horrific betrayal of trust - one that has led to a prison term of at least two years for the 68-year-old former social worker, Morris ruled.
"All these qualities that you had to show you as an upstanding individual also gave you the ammunition and the tools to commit your crimes," Morris said while sentencing Higgins to two to 10 years in prison. "If this isn't predatory conduct than there is no such thing."
Higgins, a social worker with U-M Health System's Traumatic Brain Injury Program, pleaded guilty in January to 11 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a mental health professional and one count of assault with intent to commit sexual penetration.
His victims, three women ages 29 to 48, were all brain injury patients who disclosed past sexual abuse during therapy sessions. Investigators said Higgins used that information, under the guise of being a sexual therapist, to exploit the women for his own sexual gratification.
When he pleaded guilty, Higgins admitted to fondling the women's breasts and buttocks. But investigators from several police agencies said the abuse was far more severe, ranging from oral sex to intercourse in his office and the victims' homes.
Each of the women described the mental anguish they suffered and the difficulty they had in coming forward during victim's impact statements Monday.
"I used to have a very hopeful and positive outlook about my future and the world in general," said one victim who sought treatment after a car crash. "Now, because of the abuse .... I battle depression and feelings of hopelessness constantly. I do not think I'll ever be able to completely trust any counselor."
Another woman said she's just beginning to understand the long-term affects of the abuse.
"His dredging up of memories of my prior rape caused me to become so severely depressed that I attempted suicide," she said. "The progress I had started making in dealing with my disabilities in the Traumatic Brain Injury Program has now been lost. I am emotionally and financially devastated."
Despite the troubling accounts, Morris said she would abide by the sentencing agreement reached after months of negotiations between prosecutors and attorneys representing both Higgins and his three victims.
Higgins sat with his attorney and looked straight ahead while the women read their statements just a few feet away.
"I'm truly sorry for what I've done, and I'm ready to accept my punishment," he told Morris during his only remarks.
Higgins appeared in court with about a dozen family members, close friends and members of his church. Many of his supporters sent letters to Morris indicating the incidents were moments of weakness and an aberration from Higgins' typical conduct.
But Morris agreed with prosecutors that the evidence showed his actions were more of a habit than an anomaly.
The state has suspended Higgins' social work license while an investigation is under way, attorneys said. A civil suit filed by the women against Higgins and the U-M Health System is pending.