License to Harm
18,000 counselors would have to requalify
Seattle Times staff reporter
Washington legislators created the registered-counselor profession two decades ago in response to reports of rampant, unchecked patient abuse by unlicensed practitioners.
But thousands flocked to obtain the easy-to-get credential, and patient complaints soared to record levels, particularly about sexual misconduct.
Legislators now seek to abolish the profession — and try again.
In a sweeping House bill introduced Monday, nearly 18,000 existing registered counselors would be given two years to qualify for new credentials with heightened standards for education, training and supervision.
To be a registered counselor in Washington, the state requires only that applicants pay a $40 fee and attend a four-hour AIDS prevention class. Not even a high-school diploma is required. No other state has licensed so many counselors under such flimsy requirements.
The bill comes in response to a Seattle Times investigation, "License to Harm," which revealed last year that state health regulators failed to adequately investigate and discipline health-care practitioners accused of sexual misconduct.
More registered counselors had been accused of sexual misconduct than in any other health-care profession, The Times found.
Counselors fondled patients and stalked them to their homes; blackmailed court-referred clients into sex acts; and coerced teenage girls into sexual encounters, state records show. In one case, a counselor told a female client to sit on his lap to revisit her childhood molestation, then ordered her to strip and give him oral sex.
The state Department of Health dismissed without any investigation about one-third of the nearly 1,500 complaints of sexual misconduct it had received since 1995, The Times found.
If the new legislation passes, registered counselors will still be permitted to practice with their existing credentials for about two years.
The bill, spearheaded by Gov. Christine Gregoire and introduced by Rep. Don Barlow, D-Spokane, creates three new counseling credentials:
• Counseling intern: a temporary credential for those working to become such higher-level counselors as advanced social worker; independent clinical social worker; mental-health counselor; and marriage and family therapist, which all require four years or more of college. Those seeking to be chemical-dependency counselors need approximately two years of college.
• Agency-affiliated counselor: a designation for those employed by counseling agencies under the direct supervision of licensed health professionals. These supervised counselors would not be required to have any specific education.
• Counseling associate: Those who want to have private or group practices must have a four-year degree in psychology or mental-health counseling, and be supervised by higher-level health-care professionals.
Counselors exempted from the proposed standards include those affiliated with religious organizations and schools.
Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, a co-sponsor of the bill, said she was "stunned" when she learned how easy it was to become a registered counselor in this state.
This bill should assure the public that credentialed counselors are adequately supervised and qualified to do their jobs, said Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, a member of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.
A companion bill also has been introduced in the Senate. The legislation has wide support from health-care professions, the Department of Health and lawmakers from both parties, and is expected to pass.
The bill will eliminate the credentials of an estimated 7,000 registered counselors working solo from their homes or offices, said Miriam Dyak, a Seattle registered counselor and founder of a lobbying group, Washington Professional Counselors Association.
Dyak, who has a college degree unrelated to health care, said she is one of thousands of counselors who try to help people but do not diagnose or treat mental or behavioral disorders.
Many in this group will be stripped of their credentials because they will not try to or be able to meet the tougher standards, she said.
The bill will instead create a group of people who will offer advice but won't call themselves counselors, she said.
Counselors in private practice are not necessarily the problem, she said. She noted that many recently disciplined registered counselors worked for large agencies, even the state.
The bill "is putting a whole lot of people out of business," Dyak said. "It seems like we're headed for surgery and they are going to amputate the wrong arm."
Times staff reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this report.
Michael J. Berens: 206-464-2288; email@example.com
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