Counseling Today, Features

Serving up ethics advice with a smile

Jonathan Rollins April 14, 2009

Clark Kent would famously step into a phone booth and emerge as Superman. Paul Fornell sometimes found a more modest costume change helpful in his line of work as a counselor. When situations grew tense, Fornell would reach into his briefcase or desk drawer for a secret weapon — his clown nose. “Humor is very important in my life,” he says. “If I can’t find some way to make light of a situation appropriately, then I know I’m in big trouble.”

It might seem somewhat ironic then that Fornell, whose personalized license plate once read “GUFFAW,” is also an expert on the very serious subject of counseling ethics. In January, the 30-year counseling veteran joined the American Counseling Association as its director of ethics and professional standards. In his new position, Fornell provides ACA members with free, confidential consultations.

“ACA’s ethics consultations are one of the most valued of all our services because they allow members to consult with an experienced professional counselor on the particular issue facing them at the moment,” explains ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan. “Ethical dilemmas presented by clients, supervisees, students and our peers have different twists that can be quite complicated. It is therefore helpful to be able to sort through the options with an expert. Even if the scenario is pretty cut-and-dried, it is helpful to receive confirmation that we are going in the right direction and doing the right thing.”

Kaplan says Fornell is a natural fit as director of ethics and professional standards. “We are very fortunate to have someone of Paul’s caliber here at ACA,” Kaplan says. “He is first and foremost a practicing counselor, so he brings an extensive practitioner background from a wide variety of settings, including schools, colleges and private practice. He is a National Certified Counselor, Master Career Counselor and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, so he draws from an extensive array of practical situations in his consultations. He is also extremely knowledgeable about counseling ethics and the ACA Code of Ethics. Add to that the fact that Paul has held many ACA leadership positions focusing on licensure and other professional standards issues, and you have the perfect person for the position.”

While Fornell likes nothing better than to entice a smile or laugh out of anyone who crosses his path, providing ethics consultations to ACA members fulfills another one of his passions. “Helping people problem solve really gets my juices flowing,” he says. “I love this organization (ACA), and at this point in my career, I’m hoping that I have some wisdom and experience that I can share appropriately with our members.”

Kaplan acknowledges that Fornell’s broad-based experience, along with his natural desire and ability to relate to others, made him an appealing choice to head up ethics and professional standards at ACA. “When members call Paul, they will be talking to someone who understands their world and has the extensive experience and knowledge necessary to assist them with whatever ethics, licensure or other professional standards need they may have,” Kaplan says.

Fornell joined ACA (then the American Personnel and Guidance Association) in 1980 and is a life member. Among other leadership positions, he has served as president of the American College Counseling Association, the New Mexico Counseling Association and the California Counseling Association. He was integral in getting the counselor licensure law passed in New Mexico (he holds the second Clinical Mental Health Counselor license ever issued in that state) and has worked as a counselor in diverse settings ranging from rural New Mexico to inner city Chicago. Fornell began his career as a special education teacher, during which time he realized he could have a more substantial impact working with people one-on-one. He decided to pursue a degree in counseling only after engaging in the therapy process himself as a client (he believes this is a beneficial step for all counselors to take). Fornell has spent the majority of his 30-year counseling career in college counseling centers, including the last decade in the career development center at California State University, Long Beach. He has also been a private practitioner and worked as a counselor at an all-Navajo school.

In his new position at ACA, Fornell typically handles 10 to 15 calls per day from members seeking consultation about ethical dilemmas or professional standards issues. All too often, these counselors are already in “crisis mode” by the time they call, and while Fornell is invested in helping them as best he can, he emphasizes that ACA members should not view the consultation services only as a last-ditch option. There is no shame, Fornell says, in counselors admitting that they don’t have all the answers and seeking help as part of regular practice. The real danger comes when counselors sequester themselves and rely solely on their own perspective, he says.

“Every day offers a challenge if you’re a professional counselor, particularly if you’re working alone in private practice or as a solo school counselor,” he says.

“No matter how professionally skilled you are, you’re human, and ethical situations will naturally arise for all counselors. How often does an otherwise bright, competent counselor screw up because of a blind spot? We’ve all got them, even the greatest therapists in the world.”

Any counselor questioning his or her decision making or handling of specific situations should “stop the chatter in your skull,” Fornell says, and call ACA for free consultation. “If you even have the thought,” he says, “pick up the phone. It doesn’t matter. What’s the worst that can happen? Almost 100 percent of the time, it’s a good thing you called. If you’re smart enough to pick up the phone and ask for help, that’s a sign of strength. You’re being the consummate professional.”

When ACA members contact him, Fornell says, they can expect the consultation to be “peer-to-peer, practitioner-to-practitioner — a true collaborative effort.” While he provides his professional opinion on the appropriate behavior to follow in each individual situation based on the ACA Code of Ethics, one of Fornell’s main goals is to get each caller to consider a single question: What is your next step going to be?

“Ethics should flow naturally from your education, your training and your professional experience,” Fornell says. “If you know what your values are and apply those values consistently, that’s 90 percent of it. I also believe that continuing education and being a member (of your professional associations) should be part of your everyday ethics.”

Perhaps nothing shields counselors from the kryptonite of potential ethical entanglements, however, quite like dropping the “I can do it all on my own” superhero façade. “Half of the (ethics) calls I receive would never be made if counselors were required to have lifelong consultation or a lifelong mentor,” Fornell says. “Professional competence really comes from reminding ourselves every day, ’I don’t know everything.’ When you graduate with your counseling degree, it is not the end of your education; it is only the beginning.”

For Fornell, that education has included learning that laughter really can be the best medicine and that, in certain situations, donning a clown nose may be just as powerful as attempting to fit into Superman’s cape.

“We rarely succeed at anything,” Fornell says, “unless we’re having fun doing it.”