California to change Counselor and MFT intern title to “associate”

California flagUnder a bill signed into law last week by Governor Jerry Brown, counselors (PCCs) and marriage and family therapists (MFTs) in California who have completed their graduate degrees but are not yet licensed will see their title change from “Intern” to “Associate” on January 1, 2018.

How it happened

I previously wrote about the effort to make this change here. I proposed the title change in August of 2015. You can see me present to the Board of Behavioral Sciences about it here. If you would rather just read my presentation, it starts on page 97 here. After that presentation and some more discussion in committee, counselors were added to it. This way the proposal would provide parallel titles for all three master’s level psychotherapy professions. (Post-degree, pre-license clinical social workers in California already carried the title “Associate.”) CAMFT and AAMFT-CA added their support as well. With the professions in agreement and no known opposition, the BBS put the change into this year’s “omnibus” bill. That bill combines many non-controversial changes in law into a single bill rather than requiring that each be done separately. The bill was Senate Bill 1478.

What the change will mean

The push to change the title came partly from concern that consumers and employers generally understand the term “intern” to mean someone who is still in school, rather than a professional with a graduate degree. Many employers currently hire pre-licensed MFTs and counselors into unpaid “internships” that, under labor law, should actually be paid employment. I’ve written about that issue here and here. Not every unpaid position is illegal. But some are, and even after a recent victory by a UCSF student over the university in a fight about unpaid intern hours, some employers have been reluctant to pay prelicensed therapists for their work. The title change will of course not resolve all of the labor market forces involved here. But it is a significant step in the right direction.

As noted above, it will also provide parallel career ladders for all three master’s-level mental health professions in the state. And then there are the intangible parts — like the greater respect that comes with a more professional title.

What happens now

The January 2018 implementation provides time for therapists to update marketing materials to reflect the new title as it goes into effect. Prelicensed MFTs and counselors should not use the title Associate until then.

Procedurally, it will work much like the decades-ago change from “Marriage, Family and Child Counselor” to “Marriage and Family Therapist.” Which means the old title will stick around for a while, in many sections of law and on BBS forms. They’ll just be updated to the new title as regular updates occur.

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