Marriage and family therapists (MFT) have become an increasingly important part of counseling services in recent years. Individuals trained in this discipline can treat a wide range of problems, and most work with patients on a short-term basis. Marriage and family therapy usually requires fewer sessions than individual therapy, and therapists provide an important service to society, couples, and families.
Becoming a marriage and family therapist isn't easy. While some states do not have educational requirements, all have licensing requirements. In general, you will need either a Master's or Doctoral degree from an accredited university and at least two years of clinical training. Considered one of the essential mental health professions, MFTs must be licensed in the state in which they practice. Each state has specific requirements and standards.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) is recognized nationwide as the unofficial governing body of the specialty. They play a key role in determining the expected behavior and ethical standards of the profession. Even as a student, you need to follow and know the AAMFT's policies.
People who wish to become marriage and family therapists invest a considerable amount of time and money into their education and training. It's not uncommon for tuition costs alone to be in the six figures.
As a marriage and family therapy student, you know that behaving in an ethical manner is vital for your success. If and when you face allegations of misconduct or other violations, you need to address the issue as soon as possible.
By hiring a legal team experienced in defending students, such as the Lento Law Firm, you can keep your plan of becoming a marriage and family therapist on track. Compared to the cost of your education, safeguarding your education and future career is minimal.
Ethics and Professionalism
Therapy requires trust between a therapist and patient—or patients, as is usually the case for marriage and family therapy. Patients need to feel they can share their deepest thoughts and emotions without judgment or concerns about a breach of confidentiality. Discretion is an important part of gaining patients' trust, and demonstrated ethical, professional behavior is a way to prove your patients can and should trust you.
None of us is perfect, however, and mistakes occur. Knowing the guidelines for both the profession and your specific university can help you avoid mishaps or, if you do err, resolve them in a way that will not affect your reputation or career.
AAMFT Code of Ethics
The AAMFT publishes a Code of Ethics. Many states and schools have adopted the AAMFT code as their own or used one based on it. Even if your university does not use the AAMFT Code, it's the standard for marriage and family therapists.
The state of Georgia, for example, uses AAMFT's code and refers violations to the AAMFT Ethics Committee and the Licensure Board. Saint Mary's University in Minnesota uses the AAMFT Code of Ethics as listed in the program's handbook.
The AAMFT Code of Ethics emphasizes the importance of trust, not only between a patient and a therapist but also the public's trust in the profession. The code lists nine overarching standards for MFTs:
- Responsibility to Clients
- Therapist-Patient Confidentiality
- Professional Competence and Integrity
- Responsibility to Students and Supervisees
- Research and Publication
- Technology-Assisted Professional Services
- Professional Evaluations
- Financial Arrangements
- Accurate and Factual Advertising
Each standard has its own section. For example, the section on technology-assisted professional services addresses the way changing technology, such as video conferencing, has increased the options for therapy but also the risks. A therapist who uses video conferencing or other digital options needs to ensure patient confidentiality and other ethical considerations are still met.
No Limit on Ethics
That a certain behavior or action is not mentioned in the AAMFT code does not mean that behavior or action is ethical. Marriage and family therapists are expected to know the line between ethical and unethical behavior, which can be difficult for students who are still learning the field.
Many schools also expect students to follow ethics both on- and off-campus and at all times. Behaving in a way not explicitly banned by an ethics code, or conducting yourself in a prohibited way but off campus, are likely to lead to charges of misconduct.
If your school follows the AAMFT Code and you've been accused of unethical behavior not explicitly stated in a student handbook or other policies, you need to hire an attorney to help you build a strong defense. An experienced legal advisor knows how to show why accusations against you should be dismissed.
Duty to Report
Many universities and states have a duty to report. This means that any marriage or family therapist who witnesses or learns of ethical violations has a duty to report that behavior to the appropriate authority.
After you become aware of a violation, you must often write out a complaint or allegation of misconduct within a certain period of time and submit it to the appropriate governing organization, such as your university. The AAMFT Code recommends that policies state that failure to report misconduct is in itself a violation.
If you've witnessed or learned of misconduct by another student or a member of the faculty or staff, you need to know your obligations. You don't want to risk protecting someone else at the expense of your own studies or career.
Title IX Sexual Misconduct
An allegation of sexual misconduct is always a serious matter. It can have long-ranging implications for the accused. This is especially true for marriage and family therapists, who have an ethical duty to refrain from any sexual relationship with clients and may counsel possible victims of sexual abuse and harassment. Being accused or disciplined for sexual misconduct could undermine your reputation as a therapist and call into question your fitness for the role.
The federal government requires any university that receives federal funding to ban sexual misconduct. As most certification programs require MFTs to attend an accredited program, it is unlikely an MFT student will attend a school that does not fall under Title IX's jurisdiction.
The University of Southern California, which has a program for marriage and family therapy in addition to a hospital and clinics, offers a good example of a Title IX policy. These policies usually encompass the entire school rather than a specific department and are often more expansive than what's required under Title IX.
USC's policy bans:
- Sexual assault
- Dating violence
- Domestic violence
- Any discrimination based on protected characteristics
- Any related forms of conduct
Accusations of sexual misconduct can be difficult to prove and disprove. False or overstated accusations are common and ignore the serious ramifications of such a charge for an innocent person.
Each university determines its own disciplinary system. The AAMFT has its own procedures for dealing with ethical complaints. The AAMFT procedures are standard, however, and used as a model for both universities and states. The state of Georgia, for example, refers all ethical complaints and violations to the AAMFT Ethics Committee.
Most investigations begin with a complaint of misconduct. An initial investigation will determine if the complaint has merit. One unique aspect of complaints for marriage and family therapists is that the AAMFT and any program that follows their guidelines will require the accused to waive their therapist-client confidentiality if necessary to investigate the complaint.
If the complaint is found to have merit, the accused member will receive a letter detailing the charges and the results of the investigation. Under no circumstances should you ignore the notice of a hearing or fail to respond.
Upon learning of the complaint against you, you may accept the charges without a hearing. The downside of this choice is that you will have little say in what disciplinary action is taken, if any, and you lose your right to appeal.
Even if you are guilty of the alleged conduct, you should opt for a hearing. This hearing will give you an opportunity to explain your actions and limit any repercussions on your studies or future career. You will also be able to appeal the decision of the hearing committee, including any recommended disciplinary action.
Given the nature of the educational system and its use of semesters or quarters, disciplinary hearings generally operate on a tight timetable. Many schools require the entire process, including any appeal, to take place within a few months at most. Many will be resolved within a month. That's why, when you learn of allegations against you, a delay in seeking outside help may be detrimental to your case.
If you're facing either an investigation or hearing, you may be feeling overwhelmed or unsure how to respond. This is one of the advantages of hiring a qualified legal team, such as the Lento Law Firm. They'll bring extensive knowledge of the situation and issues as they help you approach it in a logical manner.
Accusations of academic misconduct risk undermining a career in marriage and family therapy. Some schools have academic codes of conduct that apply to the entire school. Others may have an overarching policy while allowing departments and specialties to craft their own policies.
In general, students are expected to refrain from the following activities:
- Unauthorized collaboration
Any activity or behavior that calls into question a student's integrity as a student and ability to do work in an honest manner may qualify.
Depending on the severity of misconduct allegations, a student may receive a written warning or be dismissed from a program. Even an inadvertent mistake or accident can have dire consequences. Failure to properly cite a source and inadvertently copying a section of work without attribution are two of the more common unintentional offenses.
If you've been accused of academic misconduct, you may be able to identify mitigating factors or other details that explain your actions. You may also benefit from knowing how your university or other MFT programs handled situations similar to yours.
Over the past 15 years, remediation for MFT students has received increased attention. Previously the focus was on dismissal from programs for failing to meet academic standards. Recognizing that struggling in a course or learning at a slower rate does not have any bearing on a student's ability to be an effective therapist, remediation is now an accepted part of any MFT program.
The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education now requires that, as part of the accreditation process, schools have a listed policy on remediation. Southern Connecticut State University for example, includes its remediation policy in its handbook.
Southern Connecticut State University's MFT program uses a Student Review Committee to help students navigate both academic and personal problems. Such groups are not uncommon, although the scope of their responsibilities varies. Southern Connecticut lists its committee's responsibilities as including:
- Designing remediation plans for students
- Tracking student progress
- Determining when dismissal is necessary
Many schools have similar programs and advisory bodies, all intended to assist students. The problem is that their recommendations may not align with what you know you need to improve your academic progress. While the school has advisors to help you, you may need outside support to access the resources you need.
Hire a Legal Team That Specializes in Student Defense
You've invested years of your life and considerable sums of money to become a marriage and family therapist. You know that it's a profession that requires ethical behavior and trust in order to work successfully with clients. Don't let poor academic performance or allegations of misconduct derail your career goals.
As a future therapist, you know people often need help and support with their problems. You know that outside support and a trained, experienced professional can help people find solutions and move forward with their lives.
The same logic applies here. If you're facing accusations of ethical violations, if you're falling behind in coursework: Hire a professional who can help you.
Attorney-Advisor Joseph D. Lento has years of experience working with students from across the nation. As professionals who specialize in student discipline defense, the Lento Law Firm knows what's at stake and will help you achieve a favorable outcome.
Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or contact us online.