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Join Together’s recent article “Report: Lax Rules Allow Felons to Serve as Drug and Alcohol Counselors in California” shed light on how California lags behind the rest of the country by having a sea of certifications for substance use disorder treatment. Confusion like this is detrimental to the health and safety of the public, as well as to the clinicians themselves, and all who support the integrity of our field must call for change.

A Problem of Proliferation

Prospective service providers often are unable to determine which certification is best or more widely recognized, but that is only one of the many related problems associated with California’s treatment climate. Consider this: If the counselors themselves cannot figure out which certification they need or which is most credible, how can the client population be assured of competent and ethical services?

For the record, most would agree that not all credentials are created equal. Some (like International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium’s (IC&RC)) have minimum standards, an active code of ethics and a psychometrically valid and reliable written exam. Others are granted under much less stringent educational requirements. What this means is that saying you are certified as a counselor in California can mean drastically different things, depending on what letters you have after your name.

And what about ethical violations? Unscrupulous counselors who are disciplined under one credential can simply drop it and apply for a different one. Problem solved!

Believe it or not, the situation in California is better now, with the number of available certifications reduced by about half, following a state mandate requiring that the credentials themselves be credentialed. An organization called the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, an arm of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, accredits certification programs. Still the workforce confusion in California is unmatched anywhere in the nation.

A Simple Solution

The proliferation problem in California could be eliminated if the state would unite the workforce under one credentialing process with uniform standards and a single exam. While acknowledging my obvious bias, the IC&RC process makes the most sense for a couple of reasons:
• First, the workforce around the rest of the country is decidedly IC&RC, with almost every state in the nation having an IC&RC member board. IC&RC currently represents more than 45,000 certified professionals around the country. Coming into the state of California already meeting some minimum requirements and having passed a common exam makes it easier for a competent, ethical counselor to join the state’s workforce.
• Second, a single recognized credential would make it a lot easier for prospective clients to have some assurances that their service provider is both ethical and competent. Having one credential would eliminate confusion over what it means to be credentialed, and it would eliminate an avenue for a previously disciplined counselor to continue working and perhaps even exploiting clients.

The issue of background checks is more complex. The state apparently has some legal stipulations that do not allow just anybody to do criminal background checks. A certifying body cannot mandate it if it is against state law. Consequently, the IC&RC credential in California can only require sworn disclosure of offenses, which of course does not preclude lying. If we assume honest applicants, then the IC&RC credential standards provide a clear safeguard against violent offenders and sexual predators by excluding them from practice. However, simply having a criminal record does not – and should not – automatically exclude someone from practice. To say that a criminal record disqualifies someone from the profession is to assume the worst of human beings: that we are not capable of change.

National statistics continue to show that approximately 80 percent of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. have abused drugs or alcohol, and nearly one-half are clinically addicted. If we say that those with criminal histories cannot be counselors, then we may as well say that recovery is a myth. Accepting former offenders as counselors, like recovery itself, assumes that change IS possible and therefore a worthy pursuit.

I believe in change and so does the IC&RC affiliate in California, the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors. The organization has a beautifully conceived program for incarcerated men and women called the Offender Mentor Certification Program. This program allows individuals serving lengthy sentences to learn about addiction counseling while still in prison. Stringent guidelines still disqualify sex offenders, but even some violent criminals can enter the program if they meet certain additional requirements related to their records – both in and out of prison.

Recovery is about change. Criminal rehabilitation is about change. IC&RC is hopeful that California will adopt a credentialing system that will protect the public while invigorating the workforce. But that will require California to change.

Phyllis A. Gardner, PhD, is President of IC&RC, which is the global leader in the credentialing of prevention, addiction treatment, and recovery professionals. Organized in 1981, it provides standards and examinations to certification and licensing boards in 24 countries, 47 states and territories, five Native American regions, and all branches of the U.S. military. Gardner holds a doctoral degree in Sociology from Texas Woman’s University and is a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, Certified Clinical Supervisor, and Certified Advanced Addictions Counselor. She has served the Texas Certification Board of Addiction Professionals in various capacities since 1990 and is a past president of the Texas Association of Addiction & Prevention Professionals.

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