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Misleading Professional Credentials:

Unethical and Unprofessional Counselors?

Edited by Floyd Else, MA, LMHC, NCC, Webmaster

This is a consumer protection, education page about alleged "unethical counselors" and "unprofessional counselors".

CounselingWashington.com has long opposed the practice of any initials or acronyms in counselor credentials that falsely imply some unearned, higher status. In 2006, CounselingSeattle.com focused on the acronym "ABS." In 2007, our focus was on practitioners who use the misleading "generic initials" MFT, or MHC that likely to confuse or mislead the public into thinking the individuals concerned possess some higher certification or licensure beyond their degree. In 2012, the misuse of counselor acronyms seems to have largely vanished from the scene. But you can follow the history of the struggle on this and the record of correspondence on this and following pages.

Washington State Law [RCW 18.130.180] holds that any license holder or applicant who advertises in a way which is false, fraudulent or misleading is demonstrating unprofessional conduct.

In addition, most professional standards of ethics--such as the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics and Professional Standards--hold that in advertising services as a private practitioner, mental health counselors should advertise the services in such a manner so as to accurately inform the public....but that advertising should not contain false, inaccurate, misleading, partial, out of context, or descriptive material or statements.

“MFT” Websites

In the state of Washington, an LMFT is a licensed category (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist). However, you will find many practitioners using MFT which is a "generic set of initials" and the use of MFT generally indicates an unethical and unprofessional counselor. All too often, when a counselor decides to open a private practice and serve the public, he or she is bothered by the lack of professional initials or credentials. The thought process is, "Well, I do marriage and family therapy, so I will use the MFT initials."

The consumer should note that MFT does not indicate any certification, licensure or degree level. MFT is used frequently on the website of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. As regards to the misuse of the MFT acronym, the AAMFT website asks the question: "Who are Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs)?" and then answers it in detail. It begins by saying, "Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and LICENSED to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems." (Emphasis added). [So, if a counselor is NOT licensed as a LMFT, then to use MFT or to claim, "I am a Marriage and Family Therapist," would be fraudulent, misleading, unprofessional and unethical, while to say, "I do marriage and family therapy," would not.]

"MA, MHC" Websites

In the state of Washington, an LMHC is a licensed category (Licensed Mental Health Counselor). However, you will find a few practitioners using MHC which is a "generic set of initials" and the use of MHC generally indicates an unethical and unprofessional counselor. All too often, when a counselor decides to open a private practice and serve the public, he or she is bothered by the lack of professional initials or credentials. The thought process is, "Well, I do mental health counseling, so I will use the MHC initials.

The consumer should note that MHC does not indicate any certification, licensure or degree level.

“MA, ABS” Type Websites

Formerly, Bastyr University’s Leadership Institute of Seattle (LIOS) authorized and permitted their graduates in the Master of Arts in Applied Behavioral Science program to use every word on the diploma as part of their professional credentials. As a result, many alumni advertised themselves as John Smith, MA, ABS – or John Smith, MA/ABS and used these initials to market themselves on business cards, professional stationery, resumes, telephone advertisements and websites.

On October 20th 2006, Bastyr University announced that it had completed a review of the use of degree acronyms and determined that "MA" would now be used for the Master of Arts in Applied Behavioral Science degree. Bastyr LIOS has issued alumni bulletins and list-serve emails to their alumni to announce this decision and requesting that they no longer use "ABS." However, some alumni continue to use the misleading "ABS" acronym despite Bastyr LIOS' repeated requests.

The following are links to websites on which persons are listing their services using a form of "MA ABS" credential. A few similar "degree acronyms" are included from time to time. As each of these persons remove the offending initials from their site and let us know, we remove them from the list. [Telephone numbers and email links listed below are not confidential information and are published on the individual's websites.]

Websites for Counselors Who Appear to be Counseling without a License

A Brief History of Counselor Licensing: In the early 1990's the Washington State legislature began the process toward licensing counselors. Their first step was to create several categories of high qualified "certified counselors." But what could they do with all the other counselors in the field who couldn't meet the requirement to be certified? A "catch-all" category called Registered Counselor was created. Registered counselors would also be able to legally continue counseling in the State of Washington.

A few years later, new legislation changed the certified counselors to "licensed counselors" and the current license categories were formed: Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT), Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers (LICSW), and Licensed Advanced Social Workers.

At this time, no action was taken about the Registered Counselor category. But problems were becoming evident. This Registered Counselor category could legally practice counseling, but there were only minimal entrance requirements ($50 fee and take an HIV/AIDs class. The category exploded with numbers of Registered Counselors with all shades of qualifications (or none) finally reached over 17,000, eclipsing the total number of licensed counselors in the state. A Seattle Times investigative series "License to Harm" brought negative publicity and public attention to Registered Counselors.

Failing in 2007 and finally succeeding in 2008, the legislature passed a bill to create eight (8) new counseling credentials and to eliminate the Registered Counselor category altogether. No new Registered Counselor applications would be considered and the category would be eliminated June 30th, 2010.

The Health Department told Registered Counselors: "If you do not have one of the new counselor credentials by July 1, 2010 you must cease practice. We are abolishing the registered counselor profession on June 30, 2010. If you practice after June 30 without a new credential, we will consider that unlicensed practice." Perhaps a necessary measure, but a difficult pill to swallow for those who had built counseling practices over many years and were dependent on that income to support themselves and their families. Persons with good qualifications can still practice counseling, but only as Affiliated Counselors employed and supervised by state-licensed counseling agencies. To continue a private counseling practice without a counseling credential from the state is illegal, unethical, and unprofessional.

Washington State Law -- RCW 18.130.180
Unprofessional conduct

The following conduct, acts, or conditions constitute unprofessional conduct for any license holder or applicant under the jurisdiction of this chapter:

(1) The commission of any act involving moral turpitude, dishonesty, or corruption relating to the practice of the person's profession, whether the act constitutes a crime or not.…

(2) All advertising which is false, fraudulent, or misleading.

ACA Code of Ethics

All members of the American Counseling Association (ACA) are required to adhere to the Standards of Practice and the Code of Ethics....Members should refer to the applicable section of the Code of Ethics for further interpretation and amplification of the applicable Standard of Practice.

Section C: Professional Responsibility

C.3. Advertising and Soliciting Clients

C.3.a. Accurate Advertising: When advertising or otherwise representing their services to the public, counselors identify their credentials in an accurate manner that is not false, misleading, deceptive, or fraudulent.

C.4. Professional Qualifications

C.4.a. Accurate Representation: Counselors claim or imply only professional qualifications actually completed and correct any known misrepresentations of their qualifications by others.

C.4.b. Credentials: Counselors claim only licenses or certifications that are current and in good standing.

AMHCA--Code of Ethics

American Mental Health Counselors Association

Principle 12: Private Practice.

B) "In advertising services as a private practitioner, mental health counselors should advertise the services in such a manner so as to accurately inform the public as to services, expertise, profession, and techniques of counseling in a professional manner.... Mental health counselors advertise the following: highest relevant degree, type and level of certification or license, and type and/or description of services or other relevant information. Such information should not contain false, inaccurate, misleading, and partial, out of context, descriptive material or statements."

AAMFT--Code of Ethics

American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists

Principle VIII: Advertising

8.6 Marriage and family therapists correct, wherever possible, false, misleading, or inaccurate information and representations made by others concerning the therapist's qualifications, services, or products.

Note: as regards misuse of the MFT acronym, the AAMFT web site asks the question: "Who are Marriage and Family Therapists?" and then answers it in detail. It begins by saying, "Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and LICENSED to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems." (Emphasis added). [So if a counselor is not licensed and eligible to use the LMFT, then to use MFT or to say "I am a Marriage and Family Therapist," would be fraudulent and misleading.]

AAPC-- Code of Ethics

American Association of Pastoral Counselors

PRINCIPLE VII - ADVERTISING

Any advertising by or for a member of AAPC, including announcements, public statements and promotional activities, is undertaken with the purpose of helping the public make informed judgments and choices.

We do not misrepresent our professional qualifications, affiliations and functions, or falsely imply sponsorship or certification by any organization.

B) "....We may not use the initials "AAPC" after our names in the manner of an academic degree."

 
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