Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) have typically earned an advanced degree or participated in a post-graduate MFT clinical program, then committed themselves to a long period of supervised clinical experience before finally being eligible to take their state's licensing exam (which in many states is the exam given by Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB)). Once licensed, MFTs are required to maintain their licenses by taking continuing education courses.
All of this adds up to thousands of hours of time spent learning, practicing, and studying in order to earn an MFT license in any state. Once licensed, of course, MFTs must work at not only providing counseling services to patients but also at building up a practice. Earning a reputation as an effective counselor can be one of the best ways to succeed as an MFT.
Losing that reputation, of course, can be disastrous, and if a formal complaint is filed with an MFT's state licensing board, that's exactly what could happen, especially if it results in public discipline or a license suspension. That is why if you are an MFT and have been notified that someone has filed a complaint against you, it's something that you should take very seriously.
Your best approach is to contact an experienced professional license defense attorney, someone who understands how the license disciplinary process works and who can help you through the complaint investigation and resolution process. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team have years of experience representing healthcare professionals, including MFTs, helping them protect their licenses and their livelihoods in the face of formal complaints filed with state licensing boards nationwide.
Conduct That States Regulate
There are certain types of conduct that may subject an MFT to state disciplinary proceedings. Generally speaking, this includes any type of conduct that could harm a patient either emotionally or physically. In most cases, this means that ordinary personality clashes will not result in disciplinary proceedings unless, of course, some other factor is also present. Some of these additional factors include:
- Sexual misconduct. This can be sexual contact without consent or abuse of the relationship with the patient that includes sexual contact.
- Fraud, such as billing for work that was not performed or deliberately miscoding the type of services that were provided to enhance the payment or reimbursement amount.
- Physical or emotional abuse of the patient.
- Improper record keeping or failing to maintain the confidentiality of patient records.
- Substance abuse. Treating patients while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or while impaired by the after-effects of drug or alcohol use.
- Providing treatment beyond the MFT's qualifications.
- Criminal convictions. Either being convicted of a certain type of crime or failing to disclose a criminal history to the state licensing body.
How the Discipline Process Works
Each state has its own procedures for handling formal complaints filed against MFTs. That said, there are common steps that typically take place in the course of a disciplinary proceeding. These include the following:
- Initial evaluation of the complaint. The purpose of this is to make sure the complaint is about an issue that the state licensing body regulates. A complaint that the MFT and the patient couldn't get along or that the MFT did not have office hours at convenient times for the patient may not be something that the state licensing body would act on.
- If the complaint is about a matter that the state licensing body regulates, the next step is typically an investigation of the allegations. This may include collecting and reviewing documents, interviewing witnesses and the MFT, and even site visits.
- If the investigation supports the claims in the complaint, the state disciplinary board will issue charges against the MFT.
- The state may also offer the MFT a way to resolve the matter without a hearing. This typically requires the MFT to agree to certain facts and to a specified penalty. There may also be an opportunity for the MFT (and their lawyer) to meet with the state disciplinary body to discuss the charges and alternative ways to resolve the matter.
- If the disciplinary proceeding is not resolved by mutual agreement, it will usually proceed to a formal hearing. This could be before an administrative law judge or a disciplinary hearing panel, depending on the state. At the hearing, the state and the MFT will be able to introduce evidence and present (and cross-examine) witnesses.
- At the close of the hearing, there will be a ruling. If it is in the MFT's favor, the matter is typically closed. If it's against the MFT, a penalty will be imposed.
- If the ruling is against the MFT, the MFT may have the right to appeal. Typically, however, appeals will only review the legal procedures and rulings made during the hearing and will not re-try the entire case.
If a complaint results in charges being filed against an MFT, there are a number of different types of penalties that can typically be imposed, either by agreement or after a hearing where the ruling is against the MFT. These can vary somewhat from one state to another but generally can include:
- A private reprimand that does not appear on the MFT's record.
- A public censure of the MFT's conduct.
- A monetary fine.
- Practice restrictions that limit the MFT's ability to provide certain types of therapy services.
- Suspension of the MFT's license.
- In cases where the issue is drug or alcohol abuse, the MFT may be required to undergo treatment as a condition of being able to continue to practice; in some cases, the MFT's license may be temporarily suspended during the course of the treatment.
Additional Disciplinary Proceedings
Many MFTs are members of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), which provides continuing education and other support services for MFTs. The AAMFT also has its own code of ethics and complaint procedures that apply to its members. An MFT that is the subject of an ethics complaint made to the AAMFT can be separately disciplined by the AAMFT.
Penalties can include censure; an order to cease and desist from certain types of actions; a requirement that the MFT be supervised when providing certain types of therapy or undertake additional education in a particular area of practice; community service; or revocation of AAMFT certifications or membership. The AAMFT can also advise the MFT's state licensing body of any findings made and actions taken during the AAMFT disciplinary proceedings.
You Need Experienced Help if a Complaint Is Filed Against You
If a complaint has been filed against you, whether it's with your state licensing body or the AAMFT, you need the help of an experienced professional license defense attorney to help you understand the process, gather the information you need to defend yourself, communicate and negotiate with the disciplinary body, and where necessary defend you during the disciplinary hearing. These are all stages in the disciplinary process where it will help you to have the advice of an attorney who has represented other MFTs and health care professionals in similar situations. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team have years of experience helping MFTs and other licensed healthcare professionals nationwide in exactly these kinds of situations.
You have worked too hard to earn your MFT license and build a practice to risk losing it all as a result of a disciplinary proceeding. Call Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team today to find out how they can help you defend your license and your livelihood. You can reach them at 888.535.3686 or through their online contact form.