Sitting in a workshop for supervisors at the American Counseling Association’s annual conference in 2018, I listened to the presenter discuss cases of ethical violations by licensed counselors around the country. All of us in the room were stunned at some of the flagrant violations that had occurred. Among the examples presented were counselors sleeping with their clients, marrying past clients, and seeing clients regularly in social settings. Some of these counselors were disciplined by their state licensing boards, while others voluntarily surrendered their licenses and left the profession.
It’s a good thing that none of them lived in Georgia, the state where I practice, or they could have gone to jail. In Georgia, it is a felony to sleep with your client or to terminate with a client for the explicit purpose of engaging in a sexual relationship.
The 25 or so supervisors in the room were surprised at the risks these counselors had taken. The obvious question was: “How did it get that far?” We were stunned that any professional would throw all of their education and training away so casually, not to mention the damage they might have done to their clients.
Around the same time, I was managing a situation in which one of my supervisees had committed an unintentional ethical violation right before being fully licensed. This counselor, whom I’ll call Pat, had made a mistake and realized the error within a few days. Without hesitating, Pat called me to ask how to correct it.
We worked through the scenario and came up with a plan. Then came the question I had anticipated from Pat: “What does this mean in regard to you signing my paperwork next month for licensing?”
The harsh answer was that I would not be able to sign off on the paperwork at the time. This particular ethical violation served as clear evidence that Pat wasn’t ready yet for a license, or else the lapse wouldn’t have occurred. Such a scenario is exactly why we undergo supervision as counselors. Supervision isn’t a formality.
My decision wasn’t the end of the line for Pat though. Pat accepted the consequences of the breach and the remediation that I required. As a result, just a few months later, I was happy to sign off. Pat is now fully licensed and in a successful private practice, and I haven’t an iota of concern that Pat will make such a blunder again.
Sitting in that ACA workshop, I realized how fortunate I was that Pat had trusted me enough to risk a delayed license by telling me what had happened. I realized that I must have done something right as a supervisor, although it wasn’t deliberate in regard to Pat’s particular issue.
After that incident, I started speaking more overtly with all of my interns and supervisees about what they would do should they commit an ethical violation that might delay them getting their license. I told them I was wondering whether I had created an appropriate environment (as I must have done with Pat) so that they would be willing to tell me about any violations. This opened up a discussion that continued for several weeks.
My story here isn’t meant only for supervisors. If you are currently a graduate student or counselor in supervision, I hope that you have a trusting relationship with your supervisor. If you don’t — if you couldn’t go to her or him and say, “I messed up,” even when knowing that your licensing process may slow down — you need to either adjust that relationship or find another supervisor.
If you are a supervisor, you must make this an overt part of your discussions with supervisees. Since that 2018 ACA Conference, I have had conversations about this issue on a regular basis with all of my new supervisees and interns, and I believe it has strengthened their trust in me. My situation with Pat was one of only a very few serious ethical issues I have had to manage as a supervisor. Even so, we must be prepared for them, and we must prepare our future counselors for them.
Perhaps most importantly, if you are licensed, you must have a confidant or mentor in the field whom you trust enough to confide in when you make mistakes. This person can guide you through sticky ethical situations and must also be willing to tell you when you have messed up. This brings the risk of being reported to a licensing board, but taking that risk is crucial to our professionalism as counselors. The greater risk in an ethical breach is to the client. What it costs us is secondary.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.