Tag Archives: Professional Issues

Professional Issues

Counselors asked to advocate against FY2018 federal program cuts

By Bethany Bray June 13, 2017

The American Counseling Association will be keeping a sharp eye on federal budget proceedings through the next few months, as several programs critical to the work of counselors and school counselors are on the chopping block.

Counselors can – and should – make their voices heard throughout the process by advocating to their congressmen and congresswomen, reminding them of the critical work that counselors do, Art Terrazas, ACA’s director of government affairs, said during a recent ACA webinar on the federal government’s fiscal year 2018 budget.

The May 25 webinar gave an overview of the cuts pertinent to professional counselors in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for FY2018. The proposed budget seeks to offset an additional $57 billion in military spending with cuts to domestic and federal programs, the majority of which are in the U.S. Departments of State, Education and Health and Human Services.

Of particular concern to the counseling profession is the proposed decimation of the Student Support Academic Enrichments (SSAE) grants program, which is the only federally funded program that directly supports school counselors. The president’s proposed budget would eliminate all funding for the program, a bipartisan-supported initiative that was previously authorized for $1.65 billion over the next four years.

As envisioned by Trump , the budget would also eliminate funding for the federal Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the public service student loan forgiveness program, as well as reduce funding for Medicaid – all of which would affect professional counselors.

While Trump’s proposed budget is “pretty grave” for professional counselors, it’s also just a wish list that outlines the president’s priorities, said Chris Andresen, a public policy strategist who spoke at the webinar with his colleague Jayne Fitzgerald. Andresen and Fitzgerald are both senior vice presidents at Grayling, a public affairs firm ACA has partnered with for a number of years.

Ultimately, Congress must draft the actual FY2018 budget, explained Fitzgerald. This process will play out over the summer, as a budget is crafted and vetted via congressional committee hearings. A budget resolution will need to be passed by September 30 to keep the federal government funded and operating.

“We’re just going to have to see how all of this plays out. Right now, we don’t know,” Andresen said during the webinar. “With the changes that are being proposed there are going to be less tools in the toolbox for [counselor] practitioners such as yourselves and your clients in access to services. That gives us a lot of concern.”

The next few months will be a compressed, fraught process as Congress not only debates the budget but healthcare as well (a possible replacement for the Affordable Care Act), said Fitzgerald. At the time of the webinar, there were 43 legislative days left on the calendar.

“We’re on a ticking clock. September 30 will come quickly,” said Andresen.

 

 

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View the full webinar here: youtu.be/hz-d9L4ogZc

 

Email follow-up questions on this issue to mylearning@counseling.org

 

Contact your legislators via: counseling.org/government-affairs/actioncenter

 

Sign up to receive ACA Government Affairs news updates via email here: counseling.org/news/aca-blogs/aca-government-affairs-blog

 

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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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.

ACA continues push forward for licensure portability

By the Counseling Today staff June 6, 2017

The American Counseling Association Governing Council has endorsed a plan that would allow counselor practitioners who are licensed and in good standing in one state to become seamlessly licensed in other states should they move.

The lack of licensure portability — being able to transfer a professional counseling license when a practitioner moves to a different state — has long been an issue within the profession and is frequently cited as one of the top frustrations of professional counselors. Counselor licensure titles and requirements vary from state to state across the U.S., sometimes forcing even the most veteran of counselors to obtain additional supervision hours or meet other requirements before securing a new license after moving across state lines.

The ACA Licensure Portability Model, passed by the Governing Council in June 2016 and reaffirmed this past March, calls for counselors who are licensed in one state and have no disciplinary record to become eligible for license “in any state or U.S. jurisdiction in which they are seeking residence.” The model allows that states may require these counselors to take a jurisprudence exam to verify that they are knowledgeable about the laws in that particular state.

To become a reality, the ACA Licensure Portability Model must first be adopted by individual state licensing boards across the U.S. The procedure for taking this action varies from state to state. Some licensing boards possess the ability to change regulations on their own, whereas others must first petition their respective state legislature.

“I was amazed to see the progress that last year’s Governing Council made and how this year’s board has been so supportive of our rolling out the model that was adopted,” comments ACA CEO Richard Yep. “We look forward to working with licensing boards across the country in order to ensure that qualified professional counselors have the ability to practice in the jurisdiction of their choice.”

During her year as ACA president (2015-2016), Thelma Duffey helped to guide the discussion as the Governing Council considered the portability model motion. She calls the adopted model aspirational and forward thinking, and terms the plan a form of advocacy in and of itself.

“One of our goals in endorsing the model for consideration by states was to enthusiastically promote ACA’s position on portability while working with stakeholders who shared our interests and visions. It was also important to the Governing Council that we alert the membership of our vision and mission to make licensure portability a reality,” says Duffey, professor and chair of the counseling department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Much like ACA’s aspirational goal of seeing counseling licensure reach every state years ago, we once again are aspiring to establish a national standard, and our goal is to see this realized in the future.”

As for next steps, Duffey says, “ACA is engaging in communication and advocacy efforts that involve informing the membership and other stakeholders about the ACA Licensure Portability Model … and communicating the challenges to portability, particularly as they relate to differences in initial licensure requirements across states. The Governing Council also approved an advocacy plan that highlights the trend toward standardization and provides a rationale for why the ACA portability model is a well-suited aspirational goal. The ACA plan is, of course, grounded in respect for state sovereignty and recognizes that each state licensing board has the ultimate decision on whether to participate. Next steps involve ACA working with states to facilitate support for standardization and the ACA Licensure Portability Model.”

“This model is, from my perspective, visionary in that it takes into account the increasing standardization of training and postgraduation supervision requirements,” Duffey continues. “It is also inclusive of all independently licensed professional counselors, and it is respectful of the training that counselors undergo. Moreover, it is designed with the intent of protecting the public. A criteria of the model stipulates that portability is contingent upon a violation-free practice.”

Multiple ideas, one goal

The ACA Licensure Portability Model joins another initiative that is being floated across the profession to address this issue. A plan co-created by the American Association of State Counseling Boards (AASCB), the National Board for Certified Counselors, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, and the American Mental Health Counselors Association endorses allowing licenses to be transferred between states for counselors who have “engaged in ethical practice, with no disciplinary sanctions, for at least five years from the date of application for licensure endorsement” and “possessed the highest level of counselor licensure for independent practice for at least three years from the date of application
for licensure endorsement.” Licensees would also have to comply with one
of the following:

  • Hold the national certified counselor credential in good standing
  • Have a graduate-level degree from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
  • Meet all of the academic, exam and postgraduate supervised experience standards as adopted by the respective state counseling licensure board

Prospective licensees would also have to complete a jurisprudence exam if required by the state’s regulatory board. As with the ACA model, this plan would first have to be adopted state by state to come to fruition.

“A set of guidelines, as with the ACA Licensure Portability Model that Governing Council embraced in June 2016, is a positive and necessary gesture in support of the standardization of licensure to enable licensed counselors to move from state to state with a maximum of ease,” says 2016-2017 ACA President Catherine Roland. “The operative word in that sentence is guidelines, because any portability model … is at best [a set of] respectful professional suggestions to state boards. So while portability is a priority for all of us, the state boards would need to be willing to work to create a similar template for all, and that I feel is aspirational.”

“I also believe it is an attainable goal in the future,” Roland continues. “That goal may be reached, however, and still not ensure the actual ability of an individual to be licensed in a particular state. It’s important to realize that each state board will continue to carefully check each and every applicant, in much the same way as they do now. If someone doesn’t have the requirements of academic or practice rigor, it is very likely that no license will be granted. Portability doesn’t guarantee a license.”

A vision for the future

During her presidency, Duffey created a task force focused on counselor license portability, led by 2014-2015 ACA President Robert Smith. Duffey says she directed the group to evaluate other portability plans circulating within the profession “for potential ACA adoption of those models. If the task force did not see a compatible fit between those existing models and ACA’s strategic vision, the task force was given the latitude to create a model that more closely aligned with our vision for the future.” The task force decided to create a separate ACA model, which was ultimately passed by the Governing Council.

As Duffey explained, “The portability task force was charged with developing the model that considered the extensive training and supervisory experiences of counselors, and the great needs for mental health counseling. They also recognized the strong trends toward licensure standardization with regard to education and experiential requirements. The task force believed that the ACA portability model would meet the needs of counselors as the requirements become more uniform across the country. It would be very unfortunate for states to adopt a portability plan that involved additional post-licensure years of experience only to have this requirement unnecessary in the near future.”

Duffey says she views the ACA Licensure Portability Model as addressing the problem of state-to-state portability by providing states with “a visionary best practice promulgated by ACA. Although this can be seen as a tall order in the short run, I believe it will be a wonderful accomplishment and form of advocacy in the long run. Most state licensing boards require 60 hours of course work and 3,000 hours of post-master’s-degree supervision at this point in time. We are making strides toward standardization. As a result, I believe we are well-positioned to move the ACA Licensure Portability Model forward for consideration by states. It may be that we begin this work through compacts, or states that share common requirements.”

Building on a foundation

In 2015, ACA sent letters to state licensing boards asking for the adoption of a uniform professional title — licensed professional counselor (LPC) — and a uniform scope of practice, a five-paragraph job description that defines the work of professional counselors. The letter was the culmination of the Building Blocks to Portability Project that was part of 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling. The yearslong strategic planning initiative, co-sponsored by ACA and AASCB, involved 31 counseling organizations. (For more information on 20/20, including the Principles for Unifying and Strengthening the Profession, the consensus definition of counseling and the Building Blocks to Portability Project, see counseling.org/knowledge-center/20-20-a-vision-for-the-future-of-counseling.)

Counselor licensure requirements were set up individually by each state over a period of decades — beginning with Virginia in 1976 and ending with California in 2009 — as the profession matured and pushed to establish itself. In the process, significant disparities arose between counselor licenses across the United States, from the number of supervision hours required to obtain a license to the license titles themselves, creating many of the ongoing obstacles in licensure portability.

“ACA is committed to working through these obstacles,” Duffey says. “It is a real burden that licensure portability is not available for a very large majority of independently licensed counselors at this point. As counselors, we cannot move from state to state with any assurance that we can practice and do the good work of counseling. This is so even after investing countless hours in training and supervised practice. Should independently licensed counselors need or desire to move to a different state, they risk losing the opportunity to work within their profession. This is a real challenge that too many people must deal with. Therefore, I see licensure portability as an important need and promoting licensure portability as an important professional goal.”

Says Roland, “I do believe licensure portability is a goal we all have, and I believe eventually it will be a goal that is reached. Until then, we will continue to support our ACA Licensure Portability Model and uphold our ACA Code of Ethics while we remain loyal to the counseling profession.”

 

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Text of the ACA Licensure Portability Model (as adopted by the ACA Governing Council)

“Whereas the mission statement of the American Counseling Association is to enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession, and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote respect for human dignity and diversity; and

“Whereas advocating for licensure portability that allows professional counselors licensed at the independent practice level in one state to have the mobility to utilize their education and training and to serve the public by becoming licensed at the independent practice level in another state supports the mission of the American Counseling Association;

“Therefore, the American Counseling Association promulgates the following licensure portability model:

“A counselor who is licensed at the independent practice level in their home state and who has no disciplinary record shall be eligible for licensure at the independent practice level in any state or U.S. jurisdiction in which they are seeking residence. The state to which the licensed counselor is moving may require a jurisprudence examination based on the rules and procedures of that state.”

 

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Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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See ACA’s list of frequently asked questions on portability, as well as an email address you can contact with further questions, here: counseling.org/knowledge-center/aca-licensure-portability-model-faqs

 

Helping clients build their life rafts

By Angela Frank June 5, 2017

How can you judge the value of a life raft if you can’t measure the impact of the waves, the harshness of the current or the depth of the water? For clients, being in the midst of chaos feels like being in the middle of the ocean with no vessel, flailing arms in hopes that someone might see and help.

It can be hard to determine where to start to get out of a bad situation. But with the help of professionals, clients learn how to slowly build their life rafts. Not all results are immediate. It can take years for a counselor’s impact to become apparent in a client.

When I was a client in counseling as a minor, I’m sure that the helping professionals in my life questioned whether they were making any impact on me. They would likely be surprised to find that not only did they have an impact, but that I have made it my mission to pass on what I learned from them.

I remember the first time a school counselor told me that I could not only graduate from high school but that I could also go on to college. I had assumed that opportunity was lost to me because I had previously dropped out of school. No one else had ever told me it was still a possibility. I still remember the way I felt when I heard this news. I was crying because, in that moment, I felt more hope than I had felt in a very long time.

I had been subjected to a life that was excessively chaotic. Between elementary and high school, I moved eight times, was interviewed by child protective services (CPS) social workers in two different states, had to stay with a stranger while my mother was in rehab and was fostered by two other families (being removed by court order from one of them).

Upon graduating from high school, I was floored to find out that children in similar situations do not often go to or finish college. After graduating with both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and becoming licensed in counseling, I feel safe to say that I beat the odds and the expectations of many. I can’t stress enough that I could not have accomplished these goals if it wasn’t for the professionals in my life.

The list of coping skills presented in this article may be useful in working with adolescents and adults who have had childhood trauma, but they may not work as well for people who are still in the throes of chaos. This list is best used with clients who are at a place in their lives in which they are feeling safe and no longer feeling threatened by their attackers.

Many of the action points on this list are considered therapeutic techniques, but I used them before I knew they were taught as techniques to counselors. My hope is that this list will help other counselors who might feel lost in their practice or off course with a client to find direction once again.

The following skills constitute the foundation of my life raft.

 

1) Making a timeline

For someone who has had a chaotic childhood, time might seem like an abstract concept. Collecting documents can help these clients piece memories together, make past events feel more real and provide an outside, unbiased perspective into what was happening to and around them. Documents also can be used as a tool when confronting family members who deny or don’t want to face reality.

In Washington state, anyone can search online for court case files and request public records. I have been requesting my childhood records because I need help understanding what happened in my life. I collected as many records as I could find related to my past. These include court records, CPS records, police reports and mental health evaluations.

Obtaining records has been a struggle, but it has also been one of the most important steps in confronting my trauma. They serve as a concrete reminder that, as unbelievable as it all seems, what I remember from my childhood really happened. I was able to obtain one record from CPS but was informed a previous record had been destroyed before I even knew it existed. In many states, CPS doesn’t have to inform the subjects of records that the records exist before destroying them. The records told me about the abuse I remember and didn’t report when, as an adult, now I know I should have.

My mother let me know that anything left at her house from when I was a child is gone, so these records are all I have of my past. I haven’t talked to her in six years. I offered to show my younger sister the records because she was very young when the chaos ensued and doesn’t remember a lot. I believe this step has helped both of us.

2) Sharing my story

Listening is the most basic counseling technique any professional is taught, and talk therapy is the place where trauma victims really need to start. Listening is a tool that can be used to gain the trust of clients who normally keep their thoughts on lockdown. For me, having someone there literally just to listen — who didn’t know my family, wasn’t going to tell them what I was talking about and wasn’t going to judge me — was such a relief.

My counselor had to push me a little bit to get me to talk about the trauma. I brought my counselor a copy of my CPS records and let her look at them. It was easier than saying what had happened to me. I didn’t know how to bring it up myself. I had avoided telling her that I had a traumatic childhood because I had come to counseling (or so I thought) for a different reason. After she read my records, I felt she had a better understanding of why there were destructive patterns in my life.

3) Confronting the shame

After trust is gained, clients feel more comfortable talking about how they have treated others in response to what has happened to them. This is important because clients who come from dysfunctional families might fear backlash. Their family members may have tried to use these incidences against them for blackmail or as a “guilting” technique in the past. Just the thought of bringing this up and the potential resulting scrutiny can put clients on edge.

Talking about guilt in a therapeutic setting can help clients to see patterns of shaming and let go of their guilt little by little. Once clients can acknowledge that they have hurt others, it can open up conversation about how these clients are now different. They recognize that how they treated others was wrong and can reassure themselves that it won’t happen again.

This process gives clients back the power. Shame can no longer be used against them once they recognize that part of the reason they can talk about it now is because they have taken steps to change their destructive behaviors with others and are interested in constructive interactions.

It is really hard to acknowledge when you’ve wronged someone. I had memories of how I had wronged people that haunted me for years. When I finally was able to talk about these memories with my counselor, I never sensed that she judged me for what I had done. It was such a relief to finally be able to tell someone who wasn’t going to judge me for actions I had taken when I was a kid and was in a bad place.

4) Normalizing

As a counselor, normalizing is an essential technique, but there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to use it. It is appropriate to use normalizing to help clients recognize that they reacted harshly to a situation because that is how they grew up — as long as they are taught or have learned more constructive ways to handle tough situations. Children have little control, but adults are more responsible for their behavior. Discussing how destructive reactions are inappropriate as an adult is important.

After I told my counselor about what I was ashamed of and how I had treated people, she would normalize it for me, saying, “In this situation, it would be normal for you to have this reaction given your history.” When she told me that, it helped me put into perspective how the trauma affected me and why I would resort to taking certain actions instead of dealing with issues in a more functional manner. From this step, I have been able to deal with my anger, panic, and numbness in more constructive ways.

5) Practicing altruism

Clients may not always be in a position to help others financially, but there are plenty of other ways to help every day. Encourage clients to find those small but meaningful opportunities. It has been therapeutic for me to be there for my younger sister, both financially and emotionally, the way I would have liked someone to have been there for me. When I was removed by court order from a family member’s home, I didn’t get to see my sister for five years. Even though she doesn’t blame me and is understanding, this is how I am trying to make up for missing all that time watching her grow up.

6) Making amends

When clients tell their counselors about their guilt, they might feel depressed for a while after. Admitting that you hurt someone, even if it wasn’t on purpose, might not feel like enough. The next step might be apologizing in a way that feels fitting to the client. Not everyone gets a chance to face their victim and apologize, so writing a letter (which might be kept or sent to the victim, depending on whether the client feels the apology would benefit the other person) can be a very healing experience.

In dealing with my guilt, I apologized to family members because, in my agony, I hadn’t thought about their feelings or how I treated them. I offered that if they ever felt the need to confront me, I would be open to meeting with them. It has helped me to imagine these interactions beforehand. So far, none of my family members has felt the need to confront me. Instead they have told me either that I do not need to apologize or that they have forgiven me, which has brought me closure.

7) Discovering gratitude

For clients in the midst of depression or anxiety, it can be hard to elicit any positive feelings. It’s most important during these times to be grateful because the affect can snap a person out of the emotion. Making a list of what the clients have that they would be worse off without or the things they don’t want to change is a good place to start. This might also jog some really good memories, and clients might end up wanting to reach out to people. The internet is a useful tool for people searching and reaching out when the time comes.

Clients who haven’t been able to confront their past or who still feel guilt and shame might not be able to remember the people who helped them yet. Give it time — it’s a process.

I decided to use the internet to try to connect with people I remember showing me kindness when I was in despair. From becoming grateful, I was able to have more affectionate feelings toward my family and started recognizing the little things they had done to help me along the way.

Even though my mother was not in a position to care for me at times when I was a child, there are things she did that showed that she loved me and cared about me. When the time came, she gave me her tax information so I could fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to finish college. She also told me I wasn’t crazy even when I was convinced I was. These actions don’t make me want to talk to her, but they do let me know that she wanted to keep me moving forward. I wasn’t able to be grateful for these little acts until I could fully accept all the trauma and stop trying to hide it from myself and everyone else.

8) Having faith

It’s well-known that possessing faith can literally keep someone alive. Being able to turn life circumstances over to a higher power can be a profoundly impactful internal resource. For me, this takes some of the pressure off regarding the goals I want to achieve. I keep working toward my goals, but it helps to have faith that forces are at work (even if I don’t understand them), giving me the power to push to get the things I want. When I’ve done all I can, that’s the time for me to just turn it over to the universe to let it take care of what I no longer have control over. I have stopped trying to maintain control of everything and have started to just let things happen.

It doesn’t matter if your faith is in a Christian God, Buddhism, Judaism, fate, Unitarian Universalism or some other system. Just having faith and truly believing that there is some bigger force out there that can’t be taken away can make a positive impact on an individual’s life.

9) Reconnecting with community

Everyone has days when he or she would rather just sit alone at home and watch TV or be on the computer. Over time, this can result in feeling disconnected and lonely. It can even be triggering, making clients feel more isolated than they actually are.

Tell clients that you understand that it can be hard to get out at times. But also remind them that simply being with others can provide a welcome distraction, result in meeting personal goals, and lead to positive feelings and new opportunities. For frugal clients, there are plenty of free events, but this might require some research.

For me, forcing myself to become part of a community and visit friends even when I didn’t feel like it made all the difference. I ended up being grateful I had made myself go. If clients tell you this same thing, talk extensively about what happened that made it a positive experience for them. This will encourage the new behavior.

10) Engaging in advocacy

There are plenty of marches going on in America right now as a way to advocate for what many believe in. Advocacy creates unity between people with similar goals, creates community, brings hope and empowers. Counselors can help by searching for groups or communities with a purpose that would help their clients move forward from their past.

I case manage children in foster care and get triggered at work sometimes because some of the stories I hear feel similar to mine. I can physically feel my heart hurt. To deal with this, I remember that there aren’t many professionals who can relate to what children in foster care go through the way I can, so I draw on my personal experience to advocate for and understand them.

11) Using a mantra

Having a reminder of what’s often forgotten or overlooked in the midst of chaos can be very comforting. This can help clients who feel stuck to keep going. When things are hard in my adult life, one thing that keeps me going is remembering that I survived much worse as a kid and have only grown stronger.

 

 

Conclusion

When people stop denying or minimizing their trauma and face their fears head-on, the resulting calm and insight are greater than the numbness brought on by burying the past. We all have our methods of coping; sometimes our coping strategies are so unique to us that we can’t even put a name to them.

Counselors have the ability to help clients find their strengths. The hard work results in feeling so empowered that clients may prefer to remember what they have already survived rather than trying to forget and feeling powerless over what they are experiencing now or will experience in the future.

Keep in mind that anyone who is sitting in front of you as a counselor has already survived a lot. Their arms are flailing for help, but they haven’t given up. There is still a chance for them. Using the techniques in this article, you have the power to help them build their life raft. You have the power to support them and be there for them as they look back on the chaos they survived, so that they can finally be free from it. Now that I have reevaluated my personal history, I want to help others recover from their own fears and trauma.

It took a long time to get to this place where I can finally face my past and not feel devastated. But now that I have, I would rather live in a cardboard box than ever deny myself again. When I tried to ignore my past, all it did was trigger me. It did not help me or those around me. I had so much anxiety that it was hard to function daily. I forgot why I was doing what I was doing and what my goals were in life. When I finally faced it head-on, I was able to reclaim myself, my confidence and my internal compass. Without the guidance I received from the helping professionals in my life, I would not be where I am today.

It might seem that some children are set up for failure, but counselors can help them find the strength within themselves to overcome. Take it from someone who knows. Anyone who is reading this possesses the power to change the course of someone’s life. Remember that.

 

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Angela Frank is a licensed mental health counselor in Washington state. She graduated from Washington State University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Masters of Arts in education. She recently started a blog at highlymobilechildawareness.com and can be contacted at angela@highlymobilechildawareness.com.

 

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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.

Counselors in the courtroom

By Margaret Taylor May 10, 2017

Counselor educators are responsible for ensuring that students are sufficiently prepared for entry into the counseling profession. It is challenging for counselor educators to include all areas of preparation because numerous content and curriculum standards must be met. One topic that often gets neglected is preparing counselors for testifying in court. In a paper presented at the 25th International Play Therapy Conference in 2008, Marilyn Snow and Ruth Ouzts Moore found that counselors were increasingly being called on to testify in court, especially in child custody cases. But most counselors are not well prepared to serve as competent witnesses or represent the counseling profession adequately.

Inadequate knowledge about the judicial system and process regarding court testimony may place counselors at risk for ethical violations. Therefore, I believe it is crucial that counselor educators prioritize educating students about testifying in court. The first time that I testified in court as a beginning counselor, I found that I had been poorly prepared by educators and attorneys. The experience nearly traumatized me. I was not ready for the questions that were asked of me or the grueling process of cross-examination. As a result, the client’s case suffered and the counseling profession was misrepresented.

After this initial experience of testifying in court, I vowed never to be caught unprepared again. I also determined to use my negative experience to better equip counselors for testifying in court.

 

Legal and ethical responsibility

Counselor educators are expected to be knowledgeable about ethical and legal issues in the counseling profession and recent changes in the field of counseling. Standard F.7.a. of the American Counseling Association’s 2014 Code of Ethics states, “Counselor educators who are responsible for developing, implementing and supervising educational programs are skilled as teachers and practitioners. They are knowledgeable regarding the ethical, legal and regulatory aspects of the profession; are skilled in applying that knowledge; and make students and supervisees aware of their responsibilities.” This section of the ethics code applies to the fact that counselors are frequently subpoenaed to testify on behalf of their clients. Accordingly, counselor educators are ethically obligated to educate students about their ethical and legal responsibilities when testifying in court.

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) Standards (2016) also address the ethical and legal responsibilities of counselor educators in preparing their students for practice. Two CACREP Standards apply to the issue of counselors testifying in court. Standard 2.F.1.b. states that programs must include, “the multiple professional roles and functions of counselors across specialty areas,” whereas Standard 2.F.1.i. specifies that training must be provided in “ethical standards of professional counseling organizations and credentialing bodies, and applications of ethical and legal considerations in professional counseling.”

Together, the ACA Code of Ethics and the CACREP Standards would appear to require that counselor education curricula incorporate training in the roles and responsibilities that come with testifying in court and otherwise acting in the best interests of clients.

 

Competence as a counselor educator

Counselor educators are not only responsible for providing students with material on courtroom testimony and other aspects of law pertaining to their clients; counselor educators are also to be knowledgeable about the topic themselves. Counselors and counselor educators should seek guidance from counseling professionals who have served as witnesses in court.

As reported in the Counseling Today article “Your witness” in 2011, George Cyphers, a counselor educator at Kent State University and owner of a consulting business, made this statement about testifying on behalf of clients: “I have learned over the years that this is a serious business because it involves a person’s life. You cannot afford to hold yourself out as an expert unless you are willing to invest time and effort to prepare thoroughly for the challenge of cross-examination.”

Experience from practicing counselors reiterates the importance of preparing students for courtroom testimony. Time and effort should be placed into designing a curriculum that includes education about testifying in court on behalf of counseling clients. Students who are well-educated and prepared in this area are able to represent themselves, their clients and the profession effectively.

If we agree that counselor education programs need to prepare students for court testimony, the question becomes what should counselor educators include in the curriculum, and how are these competencies best attained? Various expert witnesses, attorneys and counselors have provided suggestions on what is important to know prior to entering the courtroom. Writing for the Journal of Counseling & Development in 1990, Jan La Forge and Phyllis Henderson suggested four categories: the role of the counselor in the courtroom, pre-court preparation, courtroom etiquette and strategies for answering questions.

 

Role of the counselor in the courtroom

The role of the counselor while in the courtroom is that of a witness. Forge and Henderson asserted that the counselor serves as an educator to the jury and the judge, providing factual and neutral information. It is important that counselor educators distinguish between an “expert witness” and a “witness of fact.”

To testify as expert witnesses, counselors must first be qualified as such by the judge. Demonstration of knowledge and experience may include publications, presentations and specific training in the area of expertise. The prosecuting attorney will ask counselors questions about their qualifications. Counselors answer these questions by demonstrating their knowledge and expertise. After presenting their qualifications, it is possible that the opposing attorney will call those credentials into question. Counselors should be prepared for this possibility. If they are not challenged, it is likely that the judge will qualify them as expert witnesses, meaning these counselors can offer an opinion on the case.

Valuable witnesses are typically well-educated, intellectual individuals who are able to educate a jury about their expertise as it relates to the case. Expert witnesses should be skilled at teaching a jury, using short statements rather than long uninterrupted assertions.

Conversely, “fact witnesses” provide testimony about what has been observed, heard or known as true events during the course of counseling. Michael Puhl of Puhl Law Group explained (2014) that fact witnesses do not have a particular expertise; therefore, they are not permitted to offer opinions about the facts of the case. Counselors working with children are often called to testify as fact witnesses because of disclosure statements made by children during session. As fact witnesses, counselors may repeat statements made by the child but not offer an opinion about the truthfulness of the statement.

Various resources exist for counselor educators and counseling professionals when preparing to be called as expert witnesses. The following is a list of books and articles on testifying as an expert witness:

  • “The Ten Commandments of Testifying at Trial” by David Benjamin
  • “Expert Witnesses, Courts and the Law” by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and Ananda Hall
  • “Working as an Expert — Tips for Expert Witnesses” by Aaron Larson
  • “May It Please the Court: Testifying Tips for Expert Witnesses” by Laurence Miller
  • “Courtroom Survival Guide” by Patrick J. Walsh
  • Feder’s Succeeding as an Expert Witness, fourth edition, by Harold A. Feder and Max M. Houk
  • The Portable Guide to Testifying in Court for Mental Health Professionals: An A-Z Guide to Being an Effective Witness by Barton E. Bernstein and Thomas L. Hartsell Jr.
  • Clinicians in Court: A Guide to Subpoenas, Depositions, Testifying and Everything Else You Need To Know by Allan E. Barsky and Jonathan W. Gould

This list is not exhaustive, but it serves as a good starting point for counselor educators to incorporate material into a course for counseling students. Material on courtroom testimony can be infused into different courses of a master’s counseling program for clinical mental health or school counseling. Orientation classes on the counseling profession or for clinical mental health counseling or school counseling would also be appropriate courses to include material on expert testimony. In a counselor education and supervision doctoral program, a course on contemporary issues in counseling would be a fitting place for information on counselors serving as expert witnesses.

Counselor educators can also provide opportunities during practicum classes for students to meet with counselors who serve as expert witnesses. These expert counselors could answer students’ questions and concerns. Counselor educators can also arrange for an attorney or expert witness to attend class to demonstrate various court proceedings that counselors may encounter, including depositions, cross-examination, criminal trial and custody hearings. Role-plays of legal proceedings can also serve as an excellent method for educating counselors about what to expect in the courtroom.

Likewise, educators may arrange for students to observe a court hearing or attend a mock hearing or trial. A study conducted by Carol R. Colby and Lynn Landis Long in 1994 found mock trials to be a useful teaching method for graduate counseling students who are learning about ethics and legal proceedings. Legal and counseling ideas are integrated in a mock trial, providing students experiential learning and practical application. A mock trial helps students understand the functions of all people involved in the law, including judges, attorneys, mental heal professionals, jury members and court reporters. Educators can best prepare students for possible legal proceedings by pairing knowledge from lectures with experiential learning, such as roles-plays and mock trials.

 

Pre-court preparation: Documentation

Proper documentation is one of the many important tasks in preparing for court. Outside of the court setting, counselors are ethically obligated to maintain appropriate documentation of all clients. Therefore, preparing documentation for court should not pose a challenge.

Attorneys vary in what they request in a subpoena for records. Counselors should be prepared to provide all of the client’s records. However, counselors may be asked to present only records pertaining to a certain allegation or custody matter.

Many court cases do not occur until long after a counselor has terminated with the client. Being meticulous and cautious about documentation is crucial for counselors. It is generally recommended that counselors maintain detailed documentation of any action in a client case, including meetings with parents and client disclosures. Counselors should be aware that if an activity is not documented, then there is no hard evidence that it happened. This aspect is important to keep in mind when a client misses appointments.

Moore and Laura R. Simpson suggested in a 2012 VISTAS article that when writing case notes, counselors should be careful to use definitive descriptive language. For example, rather than stating, “It appears the child was neglected by family,” a counselor should state, “The child disclosed that the family withheld food for three consecutive days.” Careful language prevents the counselor from being trapped on the stand by a statement made in documentation. An attorney cannot challenge the counselor on a statement made by a client; however, an attorney can question a counselor about an opinion given in documentation.

Once records are subpoenaed by the courts, counselors should document the subpoena in their records and then should immediately contact clients to inform them of the breach of their confidentially. Clients have the right to know when their confidentiality is broken because of legal proceedings. This phone call or meeting to inform clients of the subpoena should be documented too. Thorough documentation of the limitations to confidentiality will help prove the counselor acted ethically should a client seek legal counsel.

 

Pre-court preparation: Conference with attorney

Counselor educators should inform students of the necessity of meeting with the attorney who issued the subpoena so that both the attorney and the counselor are well-prepared for possible testimony. Forge and Henderson explain that during this conference, counselors can be informed about particular documents that will be needed and what questions will be asked of them during testimony. Counselors can also inform the attorney of any concerning issues about the case to prevent the attorney from being surprised during the hearing.

Cross-examination will occur from the opposing attorney during the course of a court hearing. Meeting with an attorney in advance can provide opportunities to cover questions and strategies that may be used during cross-examination. Knowing ahead of time that attorneys are being compensated to discredit the witness prior to a court hearing can keep counselors from panicking or answering defensively while testifying.

Counselor educators are likely to have little experience with cross-examination. Inviting guest speakers such as community attorneys and counselors with expert testimony experience to counseling classes can provide students with concrete examples of the cross-examination process.

 

Courtroom etiquette

Etiquette in the courtroom may appear commonsense, but it is a topic that is often overlooked. Appropriate dress and behavior should not be disregarded when preparing counselors for court because these are signs that will indicate the professionalism of the counselor. Suits or work attire is recommended. Also limit accessories that may cause a distraction. Dressing properly is one of the simplest ways a counselor can establish credibility in the courtroom.

Body language is equally significant. Body language can communicate strength or weakness. It should communicate that the counselor is confident, knowledgeable and strong. Jamie Hamlet asserts (practicenotes.org/vol12_no4/testifying.htm) that language can establish counselors’ credibility with the jury and deters the deference attorney from antagonizing them. Body language is an important component in training to be a counselor. Therefore, counselors should already be familiar with the significance of communicating positive body language on the stand as a witness. By displaying the proper posture of sitting straight and leaning forward, counselors will express assertiveness and professionalism. Facial expressions should demonstrate genuine concern and thoughtfulness.

Furthermore, counselors should speak clearly and politely to those in the courtroom. Counselors should declare with authority and conviction if they are confident about a conclusion made regarding their case. Conversely, it is recommended that counselors refrain from being argumentative or defensive if challenged by an opposing attorney. Being argumentative may be perceived as disrespectful and unprofessional.

Frequently, witnesses are not permitted in the courtroom until it is time to give their testimony because attorneys do not want proceedings from the hearing to contaminate witnesses. Therefore, counselors should be careful who they speak with and limit their conversations. Forge and Henderson warn that speaking with a witness on the opposite side of the case could cause a mistrial.

 

Answering questions during testimony

Responding to questions asked by attorneys during testimony can be very challenging and intimidating. But with proper preparation, this process doesn’t have to be so daunting. Counselor educators should teach counseling students various strategies related to answering questions in the courtroom.

Always tell the truth. This is the No. 1 concept to remember when testifying in court. Do not waver from this. Do not embellish your statements during testimony. Simply tell the truth and state the facts. If a question is asked that you do not know, merely state that you do not know the answer. Often witnesses think that they must have an explanation for each question asked of them and then feel pressured to speak. Counselors must understand that making an untruthful statement can ruin their credibility and harm the client’s case.

Community members who serve as jurors often place their trust in expert witnesses such as doctors, counselors, police officers, etc. Therefore, jurors will do their best to believe an expert’s testimony if credibility is established. If an expert witness betrays this trust by being dishonest or disrespectful on the stand, Laurence Miller states (in “May It Please the Court: Testifying Tips for Expert Witnesses”) that jurors are likely to disregard the witness testimony, harming the client’s case. Being honest and truthful increases the possibility that jurors will believe the testimony of the counselor.

Witnesses should take time to listen to the attorney’s questions and to formulate their responses. Simplicity is key. The more words that are spoken, the more questions that can be asked. If a yes-or-no question is asked, simply answer yes or no. Furthermore, the language that witnesses use should be simple. Laypeople will not typically understand the jargon used in the counseling field. Speak in a way that will be easily understood by someone outside of the profession.

Cross-examination is designed to be confrontational, causing one to feel pressured. Counselors should expect to be challenged on the witness stand. Learn not to take such challenges personally and to exhibit grace under pressure without becoming flustered or annoyed or losing your temper. Well-prepared counselors are ready to defend their opinions and remain firm on the conclusions made while testifying. This stance exhibits confidence, expertise and assurance to a judge and jurors.

Attorneys may attempt to fluster witnesses. This may involve asking numerous questions rapidly, speaking loudly and acting in an intimidating manner. When training to work with clients, counselors are expected to remain cool, calm and nonjudgmental during counseling sessions. These same skills should be applied during courtroom testimony. Educators should prepare counselors for this tactic and provide them with techniques to remain calm.

 

Conclusion

It has been established that counselor educators play a significant and vital role in educating and preparing counselors for testifying in court on behalf of their clients. Including material on court testimony in counselor education curricula protects both students and their future clients. Incorporating the topics discussed in this article into class syllabi and the overall curriculum is essential to preparing counselors to serve as competent witnesses and exceptional representatives of the counseling profession.

 

 

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Margaret Taylor is a licensed professional counselor and supervisor in Alabama, having served as a counselor for more than 10 years. In addition, she is enrolled as a second-year doctoral student in the Auburn University counselor education and supervision program. Margaret has advocated for children and testified as an expert witness in numerous courts, including in criminal trials, custody cases and juvenile hearings. She has presented at state and regional conferences, providing counselors with the necessary tools to serve as effective witnesses in court for clients and the counseling profession. Contact her at barnema@auburn.edu.

 

 

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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.

 

Planting seeds in Somalia

By Bethany Bray May 1, 2017

A recent mental health conference in Mogadishu broke new ground in many ways. Not only did it draw attention to mental health, a little-discussed or addressed topic in war-torn Somalia, but it is believed to be the first time the American Counseling Association has been represented in Mogadishu.

Yegan Pillay, an ACA member and associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Ohio University, was the keynote speaker for the World Mental Health Day Conference in Mogadishu on Oct. 10.

Pillay, a licensed professional clinical counselor and past chair of ACA’s Human Rights Committee, says the event was a “good starting point.” The one-day event planted seeds to begin addressing mental health issues in a country where many people are “walking wounded” by the trauma of decades of civil war, Pillay says.

The World Mental Health Day Conference was organized by Rowda Olad, a former student of Pillay’s at Ohio University. A Somalian refugee, Olad recently completed a master’s degree in counseling. Pillay said he advised her, upon graduating, to try and influence change – whether at the micro or macro level – in her home country.

“Rowda took the bold step of putting together this conference and inviting stakeholders that make decisions in government,” Pillay says. “It was really groundbreaking.”

Mental health and counseling are “not really on the front burner” in the majority-Muslim country, Pillay says, where the culture also often stigmatizes Western-based interventions.

“I’m not sure where all of this will go, but every journey starts with a single step, as they say. I think it’s movement in the right direction, and I’m optimistic that it will at least raise awareness,” Pillay says. “It’s a tangible concrete step in putting mental health on the agenda in Somalia.”

The conference was co-sponsored by the Somali Ministry of Health and Human Services. Pillay says many of the attendees were government officials, and he tailored his keynote to address the drain that untreated mental illness can cause on an economy, government resources and society.

“I think they will go back to their respective constituents within the ministry and government and — most likely and I hope so — advocate for putting resources into mental health,” he says.

In addition to Pillay, Cherie Bridges Patrick, a licensed independent social worker and clinical supervisor at the Buckeye Ranch, a mental health and social services nonprofit in Ohio, spoke at the Oct. 10 conference.

While in Somalia, Pillay also visited the campus of Benadir University in Mogadishu and met with the school’s dean. “Mental health, counseling and even psychology [are] not well-established or studied in universities [in Somalia],” explains Pillay, who is a native of South Africa.

He hopes that events such as October’s mental health conference will spur Somali students to travel to the U.S. or Europe to be trained in the mental health professions so they can return to Somalia and help those in need.

“Who better to serve the Somali people than Somalis themselves?” he says.

Ohio University is not far from Columbus, Ohio, which is home to one of the largest concentration of Somalian refugees in the U.S. Pillay and his students often work in the Somali community. Pillay is currently working on a translation project for materials about posttraumatic stress disorder that could be distributed in the community.

Pillay says he sees a huge amount of potential for American counselors to train other counselors and advocate for the profession — and mental health in general — internationally, particularly in Africa and other non-Western cultures.

“In many parts of the world, counseling doesn’t exist on its own [as a profession]. ACA is at the forefront of counseling worldwide,” he says.

“We need to really push the boundaries of propagating the benefit of mental health. From a global perspective, there is a great opportunity in the United States because of the number of students who are international” and come to America to study, he says. “There has to be a global focus. Even now, more so, with what’s going on politically. My message would be that we [counselors] transcend the geographical boundaries of the United States and see how we can make a difference for people … regardless of where they’re from. We can certainly lend a hand in terms of human resources [to help] other societies find ways to improve mental health.”

 

Yegan Pillay, an ACA member and associate professor at Ohio University, was the keynote speaker for the World Mental Health Day Conference in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 10. (Courtesy photo)

 

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Personal safety and international work

While in Mogadishu, Pillay always traveled in an armored vehicle and stayed in the “green zone,” a designated safe area of the war-torn city.

Counselors shouldn’t be discouraged from working in risky areas – either at home or abroad, Pillay says, adding that they should simply be smart and do some research before they go.

“Do your homework and talk to individuals on the ground in the area to give you an accurate sense of what’s happening,” he says. “Be cautious not to put yourself at undue risk, either at home or abroad. Make sure you have somebody [in the area] that can really articulate how safe you’ll be.”

“There’s no guarantee [of safety,] but you can minimize risks,” he says. “I think one has to keep your wits about you and do background checks. Would I advise individuals to go to Somalia to do [counseling] work? I would be hesitant. But short-term work? Yes. I have no second thoughts about having done what I’ve done.

“But if I go back, I would really want to do as much homework as possible to see if things have changed on the ground or not. It’s an individual decision. I’m a person of color and tend to blend into the communities there. I would not necessarily stand out, but if you’re a white female, you would certainly draw attention to yourself. One has to be very cautious.”

 

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ACA members: Interested in getting involved in international counseling work? Consider joining ACA’s International Counseling Interest Network: bit.ly/2o7pWgF

 

Related reading:

Is international certification right for you? Tips on getting a counseling certification outside of the U.S. from Counseling Today columnist Doc Warren Corson: wp.me/p2BxKN-4GF

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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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.