A new study of family therapists who had been disciplined by their state licensure boards showed that every one of the five who had their licenses revoked was still working with clients or planning to do so. None of them appeared to have learned much from their experience.
The 10 therapists interviewed for the study had their licenses disciplined for actions ranging from billing errors to sex with a client. Of those 10, half had their licenses revoked. All 10 were still seeing clients at the time of the study or planning to do so; those whose licenses had been taken away simply started calling what they do “coaching” instead.
This was a qualitative study, and as with all such studies, some caution is appropriate in putting meaning to what these five folks had to say. They may not be representative of all those whose licenses are disciplined. Indeed, therapists who lost their licenses for reasons they understood, and who either rebuilt their careers or moved on to other things, probably would not be eager to talk with researchers about their previous mistakes.
Furthermore, these interviews could be taken to mean that the participants’ licensing boards made exactly the right choice in keeping them from practicing under a professional license.
But given that the job of licensure boards is public protection, it begs the question: Did these disciplinary actions really protect the public? Consumers have fewer protections when working with a “life coach” than they do when working with licensed mental health professionals.
It’s good to rehabilitate therapists who commit minor legal and ethical violations (as seemed to happen for at least some of the study’s participants), and to get therapists who commit major legal or ethical violations out of the profession. It’s important for the reputation of the field, and for the safety of clients who are seeing licensed professionals. But a regulatory structure that allows those same professionals whose licenses are revoked to keep practicing, just under a different title that affords clients less protection, is problematic. It is perhaps the best logical argument I know of for requiring licensure for life coaches, who currently do not have licensure or title protection in most states.
Of course, I’m sure if that happened, therapists and coaches who lost their licenses would just call their work “professional guidance” or some other name that would allow them to keep working. While many coaches are responsible and professional in their work, the field of coaching is sometimes considered an end run around counseling and therapy practice acts.
The full article is “Stories of the Accused: A Phenomenological Inquiry of MFTs and Accusations of Unprofessional Conduct” in the January 2016 Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. It’s a scary read, and every bit worth your time.