Proposed new MFT accreditation standards eliminate vague religious exemption

If adopted, the draft COAMFTE standards would require all programs to teach LGBTQ-affirmative practices.

W-classroomThe public comment period closes Wednesday on the draft version of new accreditation standards for graduate programs in marriage and family therapy. The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) is proposing some major changes from current standards:

  • The draft standards would restore the 500-client-contact-hour requirement for practicum. Under the current, version 11.0 standards, programs can require fewer hours as long as they have evidence to show that their practicum results in students being competent to practice at the master’s level. This vague standard has left different accredited programs using different experience requirements, which can be confusing to state licensing boards who want to know how much practical experience they can reasonably expect to be included in graduate degrees.

  • The draft standards separate accreditation requirements into “eligibility standards” and “accreditation standards.” As it is now, the Commission makes its decisions based on the full scope of information presented to them. Programs that meet most but not all standards may still be granted accreditation, with stipulations — requirements that the program comes into full compliance with the standards within a year. This proposed split into eligibility and accreditation standards arguably makes the accreditation bar a bit higher: Programs that fail to meet even one of the eligibility standards would not be eligible for accreditation, regardless of their performance on the other standards.

  • The draft standards would go back to a singular, mandatory core curriculum for all accredited programs. Of course, programs would remain free to add on to this core curriculum as they see fit, but all accredited programs would be required to have the same core set of coursework.

  • Perhaps what is most notable in the draft standards is what is missing: The draft standards remove COAMFTE’s current vague, blanket exemption for religious programs. The exemption, present in the current COAMFTE standards (p. 3), says

    Religiously affiliated institutions that have core beliefs directed toward conduct within their communities are entitled to protect those beliefs.

    It has never been clear to me what that is supposed to mean in practice, but the way I read it, any religious-based program that wants COAMFTE accreditation but isn’t in tune with any part of the standards was free to ignore that part of the standards, as long as they could tie their objection to their religious beliefs. Under the proposed new standards, not only would that clause go away, but the required curriculum would include at least three semester units on

    diversity, power, privilege and oppression as they relate to race, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, disability, health status, religious and spiritual practices, nation of origin or other relevant social categories throughout the curriculum. It includes practice with diverse, international, multicultural, marginalized, and/or underserved communities, including LGTBQ affirmative practices. [emphasis in original]

    It is much clearer what the new standards would mean: Every COAMFTE-accredited program would need to teach its students how to work with LGBTQ clients in a positive, affirming way, and an appreciation for the harm such clients suffer from living in a heterosexist society.

To me, these are all good and necessary changes. First, as to the hours and curriculum changes: I hear chatter among MFTs around the country that licensing boards haven’t known what to do with the current COAMFTE standards. Those current standards are so flexible that licensing boards don’t necessarily know what they’re getting when someone comes to them with a COAMFTE-accredited degree. The draft standards, if adopted, would bring back greater consistency in content across programs and could restore state boards’ confidence in maintaining COAMFTE accreditation as the standard educational requirement for licensure.

Second, as to the removal of the religious exception: I’ve written previously about the struggles some religious therapists face when trying to work with LGBT clients, and the debate there is far from settled. But accredited programs can and should teach affirmative practices. The debate here should be restricted to how a therapist balances their values with client needs in the therapy room, not about whether the therapist can be exempted from exposure to affirmative techniques or to the suffering LGBTQ clients genuinely experience.

There’s only one thing COAMFTE didn’t included that I wish they would: Require MFT programs to be more transparent about cost.

COAMFTE will be reviewing comments on the proposed changes this fall. If adopted, the new standards would likely take effect in 2014 for new accreditations and be phased in for those programs already accredited.

How long does it take to get an MFT license?

State laws vary, but typically, you need a two-year masters degree and two more years of full-time, supervised experience. Here are the steps to becoming a licensed family therapist.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

2010-07-20 Black windup alarm clock faceIf you are planning or considering a career as a marriage and family therapist, it is important to give thought to the time and money it will take to work your way to licensure. The timing of steps along the way could impact your choices for when to get married, have children, or maintain employment in another field.

Presented here are the typical steps to an MFT license and some common timeframes. The steps and timeframes listed here do not account for individual circumstances or the many state-to-state differences in licensure laws. You should check the web site of your state MFT licensing board (AAMFT offers a handy directory of state MFT licensing boards) to learn the specific requirements of the state where you want to license. I have some emphasis on California in this post because it is the state I call home, and because about half the MFTs in the country are here.

Note that a “typical timeframe” here means a common amount of time needed for those who are accomplishing that step through full-time work or study. If you build your career in MFT through part-time work or study, to allow you to balance family responsibilities, maintain outside employment, or for any other reason, naturally your timeframe will be longer.

Progression to licensure as a marriage and family therapist usually follows these steps:

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology, family studies, or a related field. Many schools will be OK with a major in a different field if you can demonstrate adequate base knowledge in psychology and family development, through specific prerequisite classes, GRE subject test scores, or other means. Typical timeframe: 4 years.
     
  2. Complete a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, counseling psychology with an emphasis in MFT, or a closely related field. Note that some states, like California, have specific requirements for what degree titles will make you eligible for MFT licensure. In most states, you will need to demonstrate that your master’s degree program was accredited by COAMFTE (the accrediting body for MFT programs), or is equivalent to COAMFTE standards. I’ve written in the past about the benefits of attending a COAMFTE-accredited program, and I’ve also offered tips for admissions interviews at MFT programs. You might want to consider a doctorate in MFT, though it will take longer. Typical timeframe (masters degree): 2-3 years.
     
  3. Complete additional supervised experience under a licensed MFT. In some states, including California, other licensed mental health professionals can supervise you as well; check with your state to see what their supervision standards are. Note that some states require your pre-licensed experience to be under an AAMFT Approved Supervisor. (A directory can be found here: Find an AAMFT Approved Supervisor.) During the time between graduation and licensure, while you are working under supervision, your state may call you an “intern” or an “associate” depending on the state. A few states use other titles. Most states require a total of 3,000 hours of supervised experience for you to be eligible to sit for licensing exams; there is some variability here, too, however. (Pennsylvania’s governor just signed a bill reducing that state’s requirement to 3,000 hours from 3,600.) Some states simply phrase this as two years full-time experience or the equivalent. Also note that in California, some hours gained within the master’s degree program can count toward the 3,000 total needed for licensure. (Other states tend not to allow this.) Typical timeframe: 2 years.
     
  4. Pass your state’s licensing exam(s). California is the only state that uses its own exams rather than the National MFT Exam. Many states require a state law and ethics exam in addition to the national exam, since state laws vary in key areas like child abuse reporting requirements. While an exam itself is over in a day, the licensing board needs time to process your MFT exam eligibility application, you need time to prepare, and you will need to schedule an appointment with a nearby testing facility. I’ve previously offered tips for preparing for MFT licensing exams, four myths about MFT licensing exams, and some discussion about whether MFT exam prep courses are worth the money. Typical timeframe: 6 months – 1 year. Longer if you need multiple attempts to pass.

Once you make it through that last step, congratulations! The state can now make you fully licensed as a marriage and family therapist, able to work independently in a private practice if you choose.

Overall, it’s good to plan for a total of at least 4-5 years from the start of your masters degree all the way through to licensure. Your time may be longer based on your circumstances; it would be possible (at least in CA) but unusual for your time to be any shorter.

In most states, the timelines for masters-level licensure are similar among clinical social workers, counselors, and MFTs. California is a noteworthy exception there: Only MFTs can count pre-degree hours of experience toward the 3,000 hours required for licensure, so it tends to be faster to get an MFT license in California than the other masters-level licenses. Licensing as a Psychologist requires a doctoral degree (typically 5 years, sometimes as short as 4) plus a postdoctoral internship (in California, 1,500 more hours, or about another year of full-time work) for a total of 5-6 years. Again, though, your individual circumstances may make your time longer.

Ed. note: This post originally published March 26, 2012. Some links updated June 11, 2018.

Four myths about MFT licensing exams

Go ahead and be anxious about your licensing exam process — it’s a big deal! But don’t buy into grumbling falsehoods about it. Test items are written by actual MFTs, and there are no trick questions.

Every person who becomes a licensed marriage and family therapist has to go through an examination process. In most states, that means passing the National MFT Exam. Many states also supplement the national exam with a second exam covering areas of state law (for example, ensuring that therapists are familiar with that state’s requirements for child abuse reporting). In California, the exam process is a bit different; California MFTs must pass two state-run exams, the MFT Standard Written Exam and the MFT Written Clinical Vignette Exam. [Update: The California MFT licensing exams change structure on January 1, 2016.] The overall content and structure of California’s exams are similar to the National MFT Exam — they’re multiple-choice tests that use a combination of factual questions and case-vignette-based questions.

Regardless of what state you’re in, if you haven’t taken the exam(s) yet, you may be dreading them. Even if you have gone through the exam process, you may not have fond memories of it. I hear complaints about the licensing exam process on a regular basis — most of them based on total mythology. It’s as if we (quite understandably) have anxiety-based associations with our testing process, past or future, and then (far less understandably) conjure up rational-sounding but totally baseless complaints about the process in an attempt to justify those fears.

It’s okay to be anxious about the process on its own merits. The exams are high-stakes; if you fail, you typically have to wait several months to try again. That impacts your standing among your peers, your employment options, and potentially your income. I still remember completing California’s Written Clinical Vignette exam and feeling certain I had failed. In a matter of moments, I was mentally planning how I would explain the failure to my employer, and how I would plan to do better next time. It turned out I had passed, but the memory of those anxious moments before getting my results stays with me.

If I had failed, I wanted to blame someone else: How dare that test be too hard for me! It must be the test’s fault! I’m glad I didn’t take much of a walk down that road, but if I had, I would have had plenty of company. Once a rumor has started that serves to explain why the tests feel so frightening and why we feel so unsure of ourselves going into them, it is easy for that rumor to be perpetuated. Such stories are factually wrong, and ultimately do more of a disservice to future test-takers by making the exams look cruel and unpredictable. But to someone who has failed a test (or is worried they might), the stories offer comfort — and someone else to blame. So they live on each year.

Here are the four myths I hear about MFT licensing exams the most:

  1. There are trick questions. Simply put, a licensing exam that uses trick questions would not be legally defensible. Test developers go to tremendous lengths to make sure any potential exam item works well, through several layers of review and pilot testing. If too many people are missing a question, it gets flagged for even more review. If a question appears to be tricking people, either by design or by accident, it is removed.
  2. There is secret knowledge. Test-prep companies make a lot of money perpetuating the mythology that they can provide you with “secrets” or other insider knowledge to help you pass the tests. Nonsense. Both California and AMFTRB (developers of the national exam) offer study guides that say what will be covered on the exams, and they ultimately draw their questions from the same textbooks and journal articles that graduate programs use to teach their students.
  3. They are meant to assess whether you are a good therapist. If I may be blunt, your licensing board does not care whether you are a great therapist or a lousy one. They only care about whether you can practice marriage and family therapy competently enough so as to not be a danger to the public. That’s what the exams are meant to assess. Yes, it is sometimes true that ineffective therapists pass their licensing exams, and effective therapists fail. But effectiveness and potential dangerousness are two different things. If you want an outside evaluation of your quality as a therapist, look elsewhere. (Back in 2008, I examined in more detail the question of whether licensing exams lead to better quality therapists.)
  4. They are written by people who aren’t therapists. Both California and the AMFTRB use licensed therapists to write their test items. In California, you can apply to be a subject matter expert involved in writing the exams. Elsewhere in the country, AMFTRB intermittently recruits MFTs with relevant expertise. Every test item on both the California and National MFT Exams is written by one or more practicing MFTs.

If you’re anxious about your own upcoming exams, instead of buying into the falsehoods above, you’ll likely be better off to do something about that anxiety. Maybe that means simply more studying, or maybe it means more directly addressing the anxiety through meditation, therapy, or other means. (Test-prep programs may be of questionable value overall, but if they can help you feel more knowledgeable and less anxious as you take the tests, they may well be worth your time and money.) Rest assured the exam process, and those who designed it, are not out to get you or to trick you. With the right preparation, you can do well on exam day.

If you know someone else who is anxious about their exams, or even who has failed an exam, by all means, comfort them and empathize with them. Sometimes we just have bad days. But please don’t support any of the mythology above — those ideas just make the testing process look bigger, scarier, and less under your control than it really is.