Look, I’m not here to defend the BBS (California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences) or any other licensing board. They’re not your friend. They require deeply flawed exams that even they know don’t work. Their disciplinary guidelines, especially around substance use issues, are unreasonably punitive. They are notoriously unresponsive. There are a lot of problems there. But it’s also true that most complaints about the BBS are based on flat-out falsehoods.
It’s fine to complain about actual problems — although it’s much better to, you know, actually do something about them. Complaining about made-up nonsense, on the other hand, serves no one. It makes the complainer look silly and paranoid, it makes observers think that the BBS is something different from what it is, and it allows falsehoods to persist.
If you’d like your complaints about the BBS to be well-informed — or even better, if you’d like to actually be involved in creating change — here are some important things to know.
1. They exist to protect the public from us
In other words, the licensing board does not exist to serve therapists or their interests. They exist to serve the public interest. And as far as the public is concerned, licensure should be difficult, and punishment for unprofessional conduct should be significant. The mission of the BBS can be summed up as public protection.
That said, they’re not out to get you. If you practice in a legal and ethical manner, and think through (and document well) your decision-making processes in difficult ethical and clinical situations, any complaints that clients might file against you aren’t likely to get very far. The BBS ultimately dismisses far more complaints than it acts on.
And when BBS punishments are most severe (for example, when an active licensee or registrant gets a DUI), the BBS might not actually agree that the punishment is appropriate. But their hands are tied by statute. That’s one thing I wish more folks in unique circumstances would understand:
2. The BBS has no discretion to make exceptions to their rules
This is different from how some boards in other states operate, where the board or its staff might be empowered to make an exception to a particular requirement if the applicant makes a compelling case. The BBS generally has no room — zero — to deviate from any adopted statute or regulation governing their work. They may not actually agree with the statute or regulation that they have to enforce. Of course, they know that people sometimes have unique circumstances. They just can’t do anything about it. That doesn’t make BBS staff bad people; it means they’re doing their jobs as best they can.
If you have unusual circumstances that the BBS can’t accommodate, don’t beat your head against the wall trying to change their minds. If your degree doesn’t meet the statutory requirements to qualify for California licensure, for example, no BBS staff member has the authority to make an exception for you. Work to change the rule instead.
3. The board is made up of people who care deeply about therapy
Like most California licensing boards, almost half of the BBS is made up of the people it governs — licensed therapists, in this case. The other members of the board (“public members,” in official language) also care deeply about therapy and want the BBS to function well. That’s why they serve on the board.
When you don’t have any interaction with the board beyond sending them documents and hoping to hear good news back, it’s easy to forget that the board is made up of actual people. But I’ve been going to BBS meetings for years, and have gotten to know many members of the board and its staff. We sometimes deeply disagree about specific issues. But they’ve proven themselves to be open to hearing the concerns of the professionals they govern, interested in understanding those concerns, and in many cases, eager to make changes to resolve those concerns.
I know, I know, some of you are rolling your eyes, showing your disbelief. Come to a board meeting. You’ll change your mind.
4. The BBS is not in it for the money
The BBS is what the state calls a Special Fund Agency, which is just a fancy way of saying it doesn’t draw taxpayer funds. All of the fees we pay the BBS go to support the functions of the BBS. They are incredibly transparent about their budgeting. Go to any board meeting materials and look in the Executive Officer’s Report, and you can see precisely where they’re spending their money.
When it comes to the actual board members, know this: No one gets rich off of board service. For most members, every day of attending a board meeting or handling board business represents lost income. They might otherwise have spent that day seeing clients or (for public members) doing their paid jobs.
For board staff, at the end of the day, they’re government workers. As many therapists working in county systems can attest, the benefits of government employment are often good, but the pay usually isn’t. Want to know how much literally any BBS staff member makes? It’s easy to find out. And as state workers, they’re also subject to things like forced furloughs when the state economy isn’t doing so well.
Speaking of money…
5. The BBS should probably charge more
Compared to other states, our licensing fees are actually quite a bargain. It’s common for people in other states to pay much more. At the same time, the BBS is chronically understaffed, contributing to the frequent complaint that they are unresponsive. You don’t need to be a genius to put those two things together and see a possible solution.
For bureaucratic reasons not worth diving into here, it isn’t easy in California to raise fees for any license, nor is it easy for licensing boards to hire additional staff. So this kind of thing can’t change overnight. But I would gladly pay an extra $20 or even $50 in license renewal fees every two years if it meant a better-staffed and more responsive BBS, one that did more meaningful outreach to therapists at all career stages.
In the months ahead, the BBS will be engaging in what’s called a Fee Audit, which is a study of the fees they charge and whether changes to those fees are appropriate. I hope they raise them. They could hire extra people with more money, and those extra people could actually resolve a lot of the common complaints about the BBS.
6. You — yes you, all by yourself — can change the rules
Every BBS meeting is open to the public. Have a problem with them? Show. Up. Every agenda has an opportunity for anyone from the public to talk with them about literally anything. It appears on the agenda as “Requests for future agenda items” and “Public comment for items not on the agenda.”
That’s actually how a lot of good things start. The title change from Intern to Associate began with me just emailing them with a request to put it on the agenda. They did, I gave an actually-not-my-best-work presentation, and guess what? It’s “Associate” now.
Yes, there’s a long process involved in changing laws or regulations. I describe that in some detail in the last chapter of Basics of California Law for LMFTs, LPCCs, and LCSWs. And yes, I know that going to a meeting means missing out on clients you might otherwise be seeing at that time. That’s no small ask if you’re one of the many therapists struggling for money. But — and this is true for the professional associations as well as the BBS itself — they don’t know what they don’t know. If people spent literally 1% of the energy they spend complaining about the BBS on Facebook actually showing up to create change, we would get a lot of good things done.
Yes, somebody should fix that. (Whatever it is.) That somebody is you.
Like I said at the top, I’m not here to defend the BBS. There are some changes needed in the rules that govern their work and in how they operate. So a lot of complaints I’m happy to agree with. But uninformed, paranoid, and inaccurate complaints don’t help anything or anyone. And when your complaints actually are well-informed, it sets a good example for clients if you get directly involved in fixing the issue. That certainly beats taking a stance that amounts to “somebody else should really fix that,” which is a pretty accurate translation of a lot of the complaints I see about the BBS. Your voice matters, and you can create change. It starts from knowing what the real problems are, and showing up to do something about them.