THE ROLE OF THE CAMFT ETHICS COMMITTEE

Michael Griffin, JD, LCSW
Staff Attorney
The Therapist
March/April 2012


Members of CAMFT are often very knowledgeable regarding the Association's ethical standards, but unfamiliar with the CAMFT Ethics Committee and the role that it plays in relation to CAMFT's Code of Ethics.1.2 This article describes the composition, authority, and primary activities of the Ethics Committee, including its role in the investigation of alleged ethical violations and the Committee's responsibility for proposing revisions to the Code of Ethics. An overview of the procedures which apply when there is a complaint of an alleged ethical violation is also provided.

Composition of the Ethics Committee
Ethics Committee members are appointed by the President of the Board of Directors for a two-year term of office, for a maximum of four terms. The CAMFT Bylaws require that the Committee consist of not less than five or more than seven members, all of whom must be clinical members of the Association for at least two years prior to their appointment. The Ethics Committee cannot contain members of the Board of Directors.3

The Ethics Committee conducts most of its business during regularly scheduled full-day Committee meetings, which are held three to four times per year.4.5 Committee members also typically spend several hours in-between meetings, reviewing ethics complaints and responses, and any supporting evidence or documentation which may have been provided regarding a complaint.

Areas of Authority
The CAMFT Bylaws define the scope of authority of the Ethics Committee. The Committee is responsible for reviewing and interpreting the Code of Ethics to the membership and the public, and for proposing revisions, deletions, and additions to the Code of Ethics to the Board of Directors for its approval.6.7 CAMFT Bylaws provide that the Ethics Committee is responsible for conducting investigations of alleged ethics violations by members of CAMFT.8 The Ethics Committee also has the authority to make recommendations to the Board of Directors regarding members alleged to have violated the Code of Ethics.9 For example, the Committee could recommend that the Board of Directors consider suspending or terminating a person's membership, or placing him or her on probation, based upon his or her violation of the Code of Ethics.10 (Because the overwhelming majority of ethics complaints are successfully resolved by the Committee, it would be rare for the Committee to take such action.)11 Should the Committee make such a recommendation, they are required to provide written notice to the member regarding the proposed action, in accordance with the procedures that are expressed in Part II of the Code of Ethics. The notice would be required to contain, among other items, the Committee's recommendations to the Board regarding the member, and information about the member's right to a hearing before the Board of Directors.12
In situations where it is suspected that an applicant for membership may have violated the Code of Ethics, the Board of Directors may ask the Committee to investigate the matter and to provide the Board with a recommendation regarding the applicant prior to Board approval of his/her application.

Investigating Alleged Ethical Violations
The Ethics Committee may accept a written complaint from members of the Association or non-members, or it may proceed on its own initiative when it has been presented with sufficient information, which, if proven, would constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics.13 14 For example, the Committee could proceed on information received from another professional organization, a state licensing board, or a peer review committee.15 The Ethics Committee is also required to proceed with an investigation if directed to do so by the CAMFT Board of Directors.

When an ethics complaint is received at CAMFT, the Executive Director (or his/ her designee) must determine whether the person who is the subject of the complaint is a member or applicant for membership in the Association. Ethics complaints must be signed by the complainant and include the complainant's address and other contact information.16 If the subject of the complaint is not a member or an applicant for membership in the Association, the complainant will be informed that the Association has no authority to proceed against the individual.17 If the person complained against is a member of the Association or an applicant for membership in the Association, the Executive Director forwards a copy of the complaint to the Chair of the Ethics Committee and sends a letter to the complainant, (including a copy of the Code of Ethics) acknowledging receipt of the complaint and informing him or her that the person identified is a member of CAMFT. The Chair of the Ethics Committee, or his/ her designee, with the advice of the CAMFT staff attorney who is assigned to the Ethics Committee, then reviews the complaint and determines whether it states allegations, which, if proven, would constitute one or more violations of the Code of Ethics. If the Committee Chair determines that the complaint should be closed without further action, the complainant is notified of the decision and the reason for such action (for example, when the Chair disposes of the case because it does not involve a violation of the Code of Ethics, etc). When the Chair determines that the complaint is appropriate for investigation by the Ethics Committee, it is referred to the full Ethics Committee for review.18 To aid in making these determinations, the Chair, with the advice of the staff attorney, may request additional written materials from the complainant.19

When the Chair refers an ethics complaint to the full Ethics Committee, he or she will require the complainant's permission to disclose his/her name and/or to use any evidence provided by the complainant, for the purpose of the investigation.20 At the next regularly scheduled Ethics Committee meeting, the Committee will decide whether or not to investigate the complaint.21 If the Committee decides to investigate the complaint, the investigation may be carried out by the Chair of the Committee in consultation with the staff attorney, by the Chair's designee(s), and/or by the Committee.22 The Chair of the Ethics Committee will provide the member who is the subject of the accusation with a copy of the complaint, and inform him or her in writing regarding the sections of the CAMFT Code of Ethics that he or she may have violated. The member is also asked to provide a written response to the allegations made in the complaint and to provide any evidence or documentation which he or she believes may assist the Committee in their investigation.23
Ethics investigations may be conducted by corresponding with the member and other persons involved in the dispute, and/or by personal or telephone interviews.24 Depending on the number and complexity of issues involved, the investigation may be concluded over a matter of days or weeks, or it may extend over the course of several months.
Once the Committee has had an opportunity to review the complaint and the member's response to the allegations, the Committee has a variety of available options. The course of action which they select depends on the facts and circumstances of the case:

The Ethics Committee may simply send a letter to a member with cautions or recommendations concerning his or her conduct;

The Committee may close the case, based upon a finding that no violation of the Code of Ethics occurred;
The Committee may continue their investigation of a complaint, if they believe that additional information is needed in order to make an accurate determination in the matter;25

The Committee may elect to discontinue, or to delay an investigation for a period of time, by placing the case in a type of holding pattern, which is known as "holding the case in abeyance." This generally occurs if the Committee would like to consider additional, relevant information (which is likely to be available in the future), such as the outcome of an ongoing investigation by the Board of Behavioral Sciences;

If the Committee believes that additional information is needed in order to determine whether the Code of Ethics may have been violated, but such information is either unknown or unavailable, they may decide to close the case without a finding of a violation of the CAMFT Code of Ethics. In such an instance, should additional information become available in the future, the Committee may re-open an investigation if they believe that such information may lead to a determination regarding the ethical issues raised in the complaint.26

Settlements by Mutual Agreement
If the Ethics Committee determines that a member has violated one or more of CAMFT's ethical standards, they are quite likely to propose a Settlement by Mutual Agreement ("SMA") to the member as a means to resolve the case.27 An SMA28 must indicate, in writing, the specific sections of the CAMFT Code of Ethics that have been violated and the manner in which the agreement is to be implemented.29 At the time that SMA is proposed to the member, it is the custom of the Committee to emphasize that they are primarily interested in educating the member regarding his or her professional conduct, rather than imposing punishment. An SMA is often an effective means to insure that the member receives the appropriate training, supervision, monitoring, or other educational experience that is warranted in his or her case. The terms and conditions of an SMA will vary, depending on the case. An SMA may require the member to cease and desist from specified actions, accept censure, be placed on probation and/or rehabilitation, be under supervision or monitored practice, complete education or therapy, agree to the suspension or termination of membership in the Association, or any other terms and conditions that the Committee deems appropriate.30 The Ethics Committee may impose more stringent requirements upon members previously found to have violated the CAMFT Code of Ethics, or any other relevant professional or state code of professional conduct.31

When the Committee and member reach an agreement on the terms and conditions of an SMA, the Committee will supervise and oversee the member's compliance with the agreement.32 In the event that a member fails to comply with the SMA, the Committee may proceed in accordance with the provisions of the SMA that relate to non-compliance, or take other action in accordance with Part II of the Code of Ethics.33 If an SMA is offered, but ultimately rejected by the member, the Ethics Committee may recommend to the Board of Directors that the Board take action against the member as the result of his or her violation of the Code of Ethics.34

There is one special category of SMA that is worth noting, which applies when a member of CAMFT enters into a settlement agreement with the Board of Behavioral Sciences as the result of the Board's disciplinary action against him or her.35 As a matter of custom, the member is usually offered an SMA by the Ethics Committee, the terms and conditions of which will specify that the Ethics Committee will not pursue an investigation against the member, so long as he or she satisfies the requirements of his or her agreement with the Board of Behavioral Sciences. Should the member agree to, and satisfy the terms and conditions of such an SMA, his or her ethics case is then closed by the Ethics Committee.

Proposing revisions to the Code of Ethics
Generally speaking, the majority of the Committee's time involves the investigation and discussion of alleged ethical violations, and the various related activities, such as drafting SMAs, or evaluating a member's compliance, etc. Over the years, the Committee has devoted a considerable amount of time to activities which pertain to the development of proposed revisions to the Code of Ethics. No small responsibility, revising the Code of Ethics36 involves an intense process of engaging in research, writing, and intensive discussion, until a written product that is agreeable to the Committee is created. Once drafted, a proposed revision to the Code of Ethics is submitted to the membership of CAMFT for input. After the Committee has had an opportunity to review and discuss the input of the membership, the proposed revisions may undergo further changes, followed by their submission to the Board of Directors for approval. To describe the entire process as demanding would be an understatement: The most recent revision to the Code of Ethics was approved by the Board in June, 2011, marking the successful culmination of over four years of preceding work by the Ethics Committee.37 38


Michael Griffin, JD, LCSW, is a Staff Attorney at CAMFT. Michael is available to answer members questions regarding business, legal, and ethical issues.


Footnotes

1. The CAMFT Code of Ethics is comprised of two parts: Part I provides the Standards. Part II describes the Procedures to be followed in the investigation of an ethics complaint. The CAMFT Code of Ethics is available in PDF format on the CAMFT website, at www.camft.org
2. This statement reflects the author's perception, based upon his experience as a CAMFT attorney, and as the attorney assigned to the CAMFT Ethics Committee during the past five years.
3. CAMFT Bylaws, Article VII, Section (B) (3); CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Sections 1 and 2.
4. Article VII, Section (B) (3) of the CAMFT Bylaws defines the composition and terms of office of the Ethics Committee.
5. Article VII, Section (E) of the CAMFT Bylaws defines when the Ethics Committee may meet and the required notice for such meetings.
6. The Ethics Committee does not routinely make recommendations to the Board of Directors regarding a member and would only do so in accordance with Part II of the CAMFT Code of Ethics.
7. Article VII, Section (B) (3) of the CAMFT Bylaws
8. Article VII, Section (B) (3) of the CAMFT Bylaws
9. Id.
10. The Ethics Committee can make a recommendation to the Board of Directors after reviewing the Complaint or if the member rejects an offer of a settlement of mutual agreement ("SMA"). See, CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, (7)(A); CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, (7)(B)(6)

11. In the event that the Ethics Committee elected to make such a recommendation, it would be done in accordance with Part II of the CAMFT Code of Ethics.
12. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, (7)(C); The Code of Ethics contains a detailed description regarding these issues, including considerable information regarding the member's rights and the specific procedures for hearings before the Board of Directors.
13. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (3)(F)
14. This article offers a summarized overview of applicable pprocedures and does not discuss or cite every provision of the CAMFT Code of Ethics which may be applicable to an ethics complaint. The reader should consult Part II of the Code of Ethics for a complete description of these procedures.
15. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (3)(F)
16. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (4)
17. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (4)(A)
18. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (6)(A)
19. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (5)(A)
20. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (5)(B)
21. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (6)(A)
22. Id.
23. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (6)(B)
24. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (6)(C)
25. This is not unusual, as many complaints involve a number of complex issues which cannot be appropriately investigated in a brief period of time. Some investigations may take several months in order to be concluded.
26. Id.
27. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, (7)(B)
28. In this writing, the abbreviation, "SMA" refers to a Settlement by Mutual Agreement.
29. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, (7)(B)
30. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, (7)(B)
31. Id.
32. Id.
33. Id.
34. CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (7)(B)(6)
35. The Ethics Committee is not required to offer an SMA in this circumstance, and would be free to pursue an ethics complaint against the member if so desired. See, CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part II, Section (3)(F)
36. CAMFT Bylaws, Article VII, Section (B) (3)
37. Part I of the CAMFT Code of Ethics was revised on 6/11, 1/11, 9/09, 7/08, 5/02, 4/97, 4/92, 10/87, 9/78, and 3/66; Part II of the Code was revised in March, 2011 and May, 2002.
38. Former Executive Director Mary Riemersma, along with staff attorney Mike Griffin and CAMFT Of-Counsel, Richard Leslie collaborated with the Committee in the process of revising the Code of Ethics. CAMFT's Executive Director, Staff Attorney, and Of-Counsel provide appropriate assistance, counsel and support to the Ethics Committee, in accordance with the provisions of the Code of Ethics.