MFT licensure: California

Ah, the Golden State. Home to me and half the licensed Marriage and Family Therapists in the country. And, in the eyes of the rest of the country, some pretty weird practices within the profession.

MFT licensure in California looks a lot different here than it does everywhere else. And it shouldn’t have to, seeing as the profession itself — that is, our scope of practice and competence — is pretty much the same here as it is everywhere else.

What the heck is so different here, and why?

  • Required curriculum. Most states require that MFTs have graduated from a COAMFTE-accredited program or demonstrable equivalent. Not so in California. Of our roughly 80 license-eligible graduate programs, only a handful are COAMFTE-accredited. Here, there are specific coursework requirements spelled out in state law, and these apply regardless of the program’s accreditation status. This is partly due to history; California had MFT licensure long before there even was such a thing as COAMFTE accreditation.
  • Supervisor qualifications. Unlike some other states, California does not require MFT trainees and interns to gather experience under an AAMFT Approved Supervisor, or even under an MFT. For those in California who may eventually leave the state, this is vital to know: Other states may not count hours you earned in California under someone who is not an MFT themselves (and more rarely, under an AAMFT Approved Supervisor). In California, MFTs can be supervised by any licensed MFT, LCSW, or Psychologist with at least two years of licensure and a six-hour supervision course completed. LPCCs can also supervise MFTs, but they must have specific training in couple and family work to supervise MFT interns and trainees who are doing that work. The history here again goes back to California being the first state to adopt MFT licensure. There weren’t AAMFT Approved Supervisors back then, and today, there aren’t enough of them around the state to meet the supervision need.
  • Hours of experience. If you ever want to know how odd California is in regulation of MFTs, it’s this simple: You can get licensed as a marriage and family therapist in California without ever having seen a couple or family together in therapy. California categorizes hours of experience differently from any other state, lumping “Couples, families, and children” into the same category. Many fill the category by working only with individual children, which is arguably antithetical to the field, but perfectly legal. As I understand it, the language of that category was changed in the early 2000s to say “and” instead of “or,” in hopes that it would clarify an expectation that MFTs-in-training see all three. I’ve seen no noticeable effects of this change. There is currently an incentive for couple and family work — up to 150 of these hours can be double-counted toward licensure — and this is being used to gather data on how much work MFTs in training are actually doing with couples and families.
  • Exam processes. California is the only state that licenses MFTs but does not use the National MFT Exam. California uses two state-run exams, the “Standard Written Exam” and the “Written Clinical Vignette.” There’s history here too, and it again can be taken back to early licensure here, but the link is more dubious. Several other states (Texas among them) had MFT licensure prior to the existence of the national exam, but they have moved toward unifying the profession and adopted the national exam.

So we end up with a split profession: There’s California, with lower qualifications for supervisors, unusual ways of counting hours, and a unique set of MFT exams, and then there’s the rest of the country, which follows much more consistent (though not entirely consistent) standards. What is an aspiring MFT to do?

As I’ve detailed in a previous post, there are a number of things to consider when choosing an MFT program, and location is a big one. Ideally, you should get your education and supervised experience at a COAMFTE-accredited program in the state where you ultimately plan to be licensed. At a minimum, though, you should consider attending a COAMFTE-accredited program, as such a degree is much more portable than one from a non-COAMFTE program. (A discussion of other benefits of accredited programs is here; while I do believe accreditation is important, it is of course not the only thing to consider.

I’ve also discussed previously what to do when you’re thinking of moving your MFT license to another state. In brief, make very sure you know the requirements of the state you’re moving to, before you move there.

As a footnote, there are efforts afoot to bring California more in line with the rest of the nation. The state is updating its exam structure in January 2016, and currently is evaluating its structure for counting hours of experience toward licensure. Keep up with the blog for further updates on these efforts.

Originally published August 2009; updated July 2014.