Between the rise in opiate addictions and the epidemic of mental health issues over the past few years, the need for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in our society has never been greater. If you've made this your chosen profession, you already know what it cost to get professionally licensed to practice. These counselors go through years of education, more years of supervised practice, and high levels of accountability, sometimes through more than one state board. And because of the high level of public trust involved, a single allegation of wrongdoing could easily derail your career by putting your professional license in jeopardy.
If you find yourself under investigation, you may feel anxious and unsure about what the next steps are. Attorney Joseph D. Lento assists licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are at risk of losing their licenses. The Lento Law Firm has put together the following questions and answers to help you make informed decisions about protecting your license.
What Kinds of Allegations Could Cause Me To Lose My Professional License or Certification?
Every state licensing board sets its own standards of professionalism and behavior by which all their licensed counselors must abide. Most violations that result in loss of license have something to do with violating these standards and/or the public trust. Examples of such violations include, but are not limited to:
- Substance abuse. For obvious reasons, nursing an active addiction to drugs or alcohol yourself disqualifies you from being able to help others in this area.
- Sexual misconduct. Having sex with clients is the most common form of sexual misconduct and is almost certain to cost you your license. Sexual harassment, inappropriately touching clients, and unwanted sexual advances are other examples.
- Dual relationships. If you have an additional relationship with clients other than as a counselor (e.g., financial, familial), it's considered unethical and could result in loss of license.
- Fraud. Examples include overbilling or up-charging insurance, overcharging clients, etc.
- Record-keeping/confidentiality violations. Counselor-client confidentiality must be maintained. Your license could be at risk if you fail to keep your records or disclose confidential client information, whether it is intentional or not.
- Acting outside your qualifications. Your counseling license allows you to work within certain guidelines. Your license could be revoked if you offer therapy or treatment outside of these guidelines.
Are There Alternative Penalties That Allow Me To Keep My License?
Yes. Your state licensing board won't automatically revoke or suspend your license for every infraction—and having a professional license defense attorney in your corner can help minimize these penalties, in fact. Examples of other penalties or sanctions include supervised probation, mandatory treatment, fines, mandatory continuing education, restrictions on your scope of practice, and formal reprimand. Bear in mind that even minor penalties may still show up on your public service record and can therefore damage your career—even if you're still allowed to practice.
I Have Been Notified That My License Is Being Investigated, or a Formal Complaint Has Been Filed. What Should I Expect?
Every state licensing board has its own policies and procedures for handling disciplinary action. Most disciplinary processes begin when someone files a formal complaint against you with the board. From there, the process generally proceeds as follows:
- Review of the complaint. The board will decide if the complaint has merit and falls under their jurisdiction.
- Investigation. The board will investigate the complaint further to determine if there is sufficient evidence to support it. You may be asked to submit a written response to the allegations as part of this process. Investigators may also question the complainant and other witnesses, subpoena documents, etc.
- Consent decree. If the board finds enough evidence to prove a violation, it may try to negotiate with you on a consent decree as an alternative to a formal hearing. A consent decree is a binding agreement between you and the state in which you admit to wrongdoing and agree to certain disciplinary actions.
- Formal hearing. If the matter moves to a formal hearing, both sides will present their evidence, either before the board or an Administrative Law Judge.
- Board action. The board makes a final decision and determines the appropriate penalty.
At any point in this process, the board may be convinced either to dismiss the complaint for lack of evidence or to agree to more lenient penalties. An experienced professional license defense lawyer can be infinitely helpful in this process.
Should I Agree to a Consent Decree if One Is Offered?
Possibly, but not always. Consent decrees are essentially an admission of guilt. They can be compared to plea agreements in criminal cases. However, they usually result in a lower penalty than if the case goes to the hearing stage—and they may also make it easier to get your license reinstated if you are demonstrating cooperation with the board. However, since it is an admission of guilt and includes a sanction, the consent decree also becomes part of your public record and may still result in the loss of your license—so if you have grounds to refute the complaint against you, it might not be a good idea to agree to a consent decree. Before agreeing to any consent decree negotiations, consult with your attorney.
How Can a Professional License Defense Attorney Help Me?
Having an experienced attorney at your side can literally make the difference in whether you're allowed to continue practicing as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor. A good attorney can represent you officially in all interactions with the board, negotiate for the dismissal of the complaint or the best possible terms of sanctions, defend you aggressively at a formal hearing, advise you on the wisdom of accepting a consent decree, and even help you get your license reinstated if it's already been suspended or revoked.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended many licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, and he knows how to position you for the best possible outcome when your professional license is under fire. If you're a licensed substance abuse/behavioral disorder counselor who has been accused of misconduct, contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your case and your options.