Report says Miss. should allow criminal background checks for counselors

Published 3:43 pm Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Mississippi should tighten its laws to require background checks for all people who want to become licensed professional counselors, says a new report by a legislative watchdog group.

The Board of Examiners for Licensed Professional Counselors currently relies on applicants to report whether they have criminal histories because state law does not authorize the board to conduct background checks.

“As a result, the board may not be able to protect the public from applicants who do not disclose criminal histories and subsequently obtain counseling licenses,” according to the report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER.

The report about the counselors board was released to the public Monday, though it is dated June 12. PEER says the report is a periodic review and was not prompted by specific complaints.

PEER recommends that background checks be authorized to determine counselors’ “good moral character,” which would be defined by “an absence of felony convictions or convictions for misdemeanors involving moral turpitude.”

Ann A. Cox, executive director of the Board of Examiners for Licensed Professional Counselors, said the board welcomes PEER’s recommendation to allow criminal background checks.

“I know it has been discussed in board meetings,” Cox said Monday.

The report also says:

— The board does not track or maintain complete, confidential records of complaints that have been filed, investigated or resolved. The board also has “insufficient standards for investigating complaints.”

— The board should provide public information about disciplinary sanctions against licensed professional counselors so people can make informed choices when seeking counseling.

— Applicants seeking licensure are required to pass an examination that measures academic knowledge of counseling information and skills, but the exam does not use the most rigorous process available to ensure that an applicant is fully prepared to practice without supervision.

— The board is not able to protect Mississippians from receiving counseling services from people who might not be qualified because state law exempts 13 professional categories from licensure while still allowing them to work as counselors.

Among the 13 categories exempt from licensure are ordained ministers, certified school counselors, professional employees of alcohol or drug abuse centers or treatment facilities, and employees of regional mental health centers and state mental hospitals.

Cox said the board supports PEER’s recommendation to remove the exemption for “professionals registered, certified or licensed by a recognized state or national association that has a published code of ethics.” Cox said the exemption can be “risky.”

She said the board has dealt with somebody who thought he could continue to work as a counselor in Mississippi after his state license had been revoked. She said he argued that his certification through a national group allowed him to keep working here.

“When they found out his (state) license had been revoked, they revoked his certification,” Cox said.

On the Net:

Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review: http://www.peer.state.ms.us