An increasingly-complex world means that there are more situations where people need skilled counseling services. Whether it's general counseling for a range of issues or specialized counseling for highly focused needs, the number and types of licensed counselors are growing nationwide.
The vast majority of counselors are licensed by the state in which they practice. And while some of the more specialized types of counselors may not yet be subject to state licensing requirements, the general trend is for there to be more licensing rather than less. Each state that licenses a specific type of counselor has requirements that candidates must meet before the state grants a license to practice.
In most cases, licensed counselors must have a master's or doctorate degree in their particular specialty. In addition, they typically must have a substantial number of hours of supervised counseling experience. Most states also require license candidates to have passed a national counseling test.
Altogether, a counselor can spend four to six years earning their bachelor's and master's degrees, two to three additional years getting the required supervised counseling experience, and many hours studying for the licensing exam. This is a significant investment of both time and money, not to mention emotional energy, and is why if you are a licensed counselor and learn that a formal complaint has been filed against you, it is something that you want to take very seriously.
Getting help from an attorney with experience helping counselors in disciplinary situations is one of the best things you can do, and when a complaint has been filed against you, the sooner you do so, the better. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team have years of experience helping counselors nationwide with disciplinary proceedings, and they can help you too.
Typical Reasons for Disciplinary Proceedings
While each state has its own rules for disciplining licensed counseling professionals, there are a number of common situations that typically give rise to a complaint that could threaten a counselor's license. These include the following:
- Fraud issues, such as billing for more time than was spent on a matter, misdescribing the work that was done in an effort to be paid at a higher rate, falsely diagnosing a patient, and other fraudulent behavior;
- Recordkeeping issues, including improperly recording work that was done with a patient or mishandling patient records;
- Substance abuse issues, particularly where the counselor was treating a patient while under the influence of drugs or alcohol;
- Sexual misconduct issues, including sexual assault or entering into an improper relationship with a patient where the counselor and the patient were sexually intimate;
- Abuse issues involving physical or emotional abuse of a patient;
- Criminal conviction issues, where the counselor had an obligation to disclose past or present convictions to licensing authorities but failed to do so.
This is not an exhaustive list. Generally, any conduct that puts the safety or well-being of a patient at risk could result in a complaint being filed against the counselor.
The Disciplinary Process
Each state has its own rules about how the disciplinary process is structured. There are a number of common steps that state disciplinary bodies typically take when a complaint is filed against a licensed counselor. These can be summarized as follows:
- The complaint will be reviewed to make sure it is one that the disciplinary body has jurisdiction over. Not every matter that a patient complains about is something that a state disciplinary body regulates.
- If the complaint is about the proper kind of issue, the state will typically start an investigation. This may take months and can involve document requests, witness interviews, interviews with the counselor involved in the complaint, and site visits.
- If the investigation finds that the complaint lacks factual support, the matter may be closed. If the complaint does have factual support, the state disciplinary body may issue charges against the counselor.
- Once charges are issued, the state may propose to resolve the matter with an agreed penalty. In some cases, there may be a settlement conference to discuss alternatives to the state's proposal.
- If the matter has not been resolved, then it will proceed to a formal hearing at which evidence may be introduced by both the state and the counselor, and witnesses may testify and be cross-examined.
- At the close of the hearing, the ruling body (it may be an administrative law judge or a state-formed committee) will issue a ruling. If the ruling is in favor of the counselor, the matter is closed. If it is against the counselor, the state will also impose a penalty.
There is typically an appeal process, but the scope of most appeals is limited to whether or not there were errors in the procedures used or law applied by the disciplinary body; the appeal will not be a re-do of the hearing.
Licensing boards typically have a range of penalties that they impose if charges against a counselor are upheld. These include private, non-public penalties, such as a reprimand or, in cases where substance abuse is an issue, temporary suspension of the counselor's license while the counselor is in treatment for the issue.
There are also public penalties that go on the counselor's record. These include censure, monetary fines, restrictions on the types of counseling that the counselor can provide, and suspension of the counselor's license.
If a Complaint Has Been Filed Against You, Seek Professional Help
Trying to defend yourself against charges brought by your state's licensing body can be frustrating, difficult, and dangerously unhelpful. Just as you would recommend someone in need of counseling to speak with someone trained to help, so too should you seek the help of a trained professional when dealing with a misconduct complaint. An experienced professional license defense attorney understands how the license discipline system works; what laws and procedures apply, how to gather, preserve, and present evidence that will help you defend yourself against the charges, when and how to negotiate with licensing boards, and most importantly the most effective ways to present a defense in a disciplinary hearing.
Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team have been helping licensed counselors nationwide defend their professional licenses for years. They understand how important your counseling license is to you and how much money, effort, and time you've spent earning and maintaining that license, and they will fight for your career, your license, and your rights. If you've been notified that a formal complaint has been filed against you, don't delay; call Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team today at 888.535.3686, or reach out to them online. As you know from your own experience, taking that first step can make all the difference in arriving at a successful result.