Mental health counselors play an incredibly important role in our national health care system. While the training, licensing, and continuing education requirements vary from state to state, they are typically very rigorous and require an advanced (master's or doctoral) degree from an accredited counseling program (or substantial equivalent); one to two years' worth of supervised experience providing counseling services to patients; and a passing grade on the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination, administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). After licensing, mental health counselors are required to meet stringent practice standards and fulfill ongoing continuing education requirements in order to maintain and renew their licenses.
All of this means that as a licensed mental health counselor, you've devoted years of your life to meeting the educational, practice, and testing requirements necessary for you to be able to provide your patients with the kind of quality mental health care that they deserve. If anyone – a patient, colleague, or employer – files a formal complaint against you, you need to take it very seriously. Your very livelihood may be in danger, and you want to do everything you can to defend yourself against allegations in the complaint and any charges that your state's licensing body may bring against you as a result.
Each state has its own procedures for reviewing, investigating, and resolving formal complaints filed against mental health counselors. That said, the complaint process typically includes a number of common steps that you should know about. In addition, because the complaint process is so important to your professional and sometimes personal reputation as well as your ability to make a living, you should retain an experienced professional license defense attorney who can help you understand the process and craft an effective defense. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team have years of experience helping licensed mental health counselors and other health care professionals nationwide defend themselves against complaints that could endanger their ability to practice their profession. They are ready to do the same for you.
Type of Conduct Regulated by States
As noted, each state has its own standards that apply to licensed mental health counselors. Typically, however, the kind of conduct that can result in license-threatening charges being brought against a counselor includes the following:
- Fraud; charging for counseling work not provided or mischaracterizing the work performed in an attempt to cheat a patient or their insurance company.
- Sexual misconduct, either non-consensual sexual contact or contact that is the result of the counselor entering into an emotional and physical relationship with a patient.
- Alcohol or drug abuse that affects the counselor's ability to properly serve their patients.
- Records mismanagement, including failing to accurately or competently record patient sessions and treatment notes, or disclosing information from a patient's records in violation of patient confidentiality rights.
- Treating beyond qualifications; when a counselor treats a patient in a way that exceeds the scope of the type of treatment the counselor is licensed to provide.
- Failing to disclose criminal convictions, either at the time of licensing or while licensed.
That said, not every dispute between a patient and a counselor will support a formal complaint. A personality clash, without more, typically won't support charges being filed against the mental health counselor, nor will the counselor's refusal to provide requested treatment that goes beyond the scope of their license or that is not medically advisable under the circumstances.
The Typical Discipline Process
Once a complaint is filed with a state licensing body, it will typically be reviewed to make sure it is the type of complaint that the licensing body has the jurisdiction to discipline for. As noted, not every complaint relates to the kind of patient welfare or safety issue that states regulate. If the complaint does meet the state's standards, then the usual process is as follows:
- Investigation. The state will initiate an investigation into the complaint's allegations. These can include a review of relevant documents; interviews with the complainant, the counselor, and others; and even site visits where it might be relevant to the complaint.
- Dismissal or Filing of Charges. If the investigation shows that there is not enough substance to the complaint to warrant further action, the state may elect to close the matter. If, however, the facts appear to support some or all aspects of the complaint, the state will typically charge the counselor with specific violations of state law or practice requirements.
- An Offer to Accept Responsibility. In many cases, the state will also propose that the counselor agree that a certain series of facts occurred, that the counselor committed certain violations, and that, as a result, the state will impose a certain penalty on the counselor. If the counselor agrees to this, then the process will typically end. In some cases, the counselor may be able to meet with a representative of the state disciplinary body to negotiate a settlement that may differ from what the state proposes.
- Formal Hearing. Where the disciplinary matter is not resolved by agreement, there will usually be a formal hearing at which evidence in the form of documents, witness statements, and witness testimony may be introduced. The hearing may take place before a body appointed by the state licensing authority or before an administrative or civil judge, again depending on the state.
- Ruling. At the close of the hearing, there will be a verdict, either in favor of the counselor or against the counselor.
- Penalty. If the ruling is against the counselor, a penalty will be imposed.
- Appeal. A typical appeal will not be a retrial of the hearing but will focus only on whether there were legal or procedural mistakes made during the process that would support overturning or changing the result.
At each of these stages, it can be enormously helpful to have the advice of an experienced professional license defense attorney, someone who has been there before, understands the process, and can help you craft an effective defense and protect your ability to practice. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team have that experience and can advise and assist you with your defense.
There is typically a wide range of possible penalties that can result from the disciplinary process. These can range from private reprimands to public penalties such as censure, monetary fines, practice restrictions, and of course, license suspensions. In cases of alcohol or drug abuse, a state may require the counselor to enroll in and complete a substance abuse program, and the state may temporarily restrict the counselor's ability to practice during that treatment.
Additional Disciplinary Procedures
A mental health counselor who has been certified as such by the National Board for Certified Counselors may also be subject to the NBCC's ethics case procedures. These procedures will typically differ from those that operate at the state level, but the consequences can be just as severe; a ruling against the counselor can result in the NBCC suspending the counselor's NBCC certification, which in turn can result in the counselor losing their state license. This is why if an NBCC complaint is filed against you, it can be just as important to have an experienced professional license defense attorney on your side as it is if you're being disciplined at the state level.
Contact Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team
If you are a licensed mental health counselor and learn that a formal complaint has been filed against you – whether with your state licensing body or with the NBCC – contact Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team today. They have helped other healthcare professionals nationwide, including mental health counselors, defend themselves in disciplinary and ethics investigations and hearings. They will help you understand the charges against you; investigate the facts and identify relevant witnesses; communicate and negotiate with the disciplinary body; and, where necessary, appear at the hearing and work with you to defend your license.
If you're in this situation, don't delay – call Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Professional License Defense Team today at 888.535.3686 or by using their online contact form. They are here to listen and to help.