Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, the new director of the APA Ethics Office as of Nov. 1, may have one of the most prominent backgrounds in the United States in educating, training and consulting with psychologists on ethics.
And it is that educative focus that he intends to emphasize in the office.
"I want to develop the office so that its main focus is being a resource for the psychologist," says Behnke, who was previously director of the Program in the Practice of Scientific Investigation at Harvard Medical School's Division of Medical Ethics.
And, indeed, APA's Chief Operating Officer Michael Honaker, PhD, says Behnke's impressive work on ethics education is a key reason the association tapped him for the job, out of a field of about 30 candidates.
"Of the two major components of APA's program, education and adjudication, we want to develop education to a far greater extent than we have in the past, rather than having the emphasis on punishing people after they get in trouble," says Honaker.
Behnke has consulted on ethics in psychology, formally and informally, for about 15 years. He has written extensively in books, journals and newsletters on diverse subjects in the topic area, including confidentiality, outpatient commitment, legal competence, recovered memories and third-party liability, informed consent and criminal responsibility of mentally ill people. He has co-authored books on the essentials of mental health law for four separate states: Massachusetts, New York, California and Florida.
At Harvard, Behnke led the school's program to train postdoctoral students in research ethics and consulted on medical ethics. In addition, for the past four years he has had a private practice in psychotherapy, and served on staff at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, which is a teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School.
His path to becoming an ethics educator began at Yale Law School in the mid-1980s, where he became interested in the relationships among law, ethics and psychology. After he received his JD from Yale, he worked with psychiatric patients in a halfway house, even as he began practicing as an attorney. His interest unabated, he completed a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan. He then moved first to a postdoctoral position and then to the position of chief psychologist at the day hospital unit at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.
After four years there, his continued writing on ethics led first to a year-long faculty fellowship in "Ethics and the Professions" at Harvard, then to his most recent position in the division of medical ethics.
Behnke is excited by the opportunity to step into APA's top ethics post just as the association is considering significant changes to its ethics structure: APA's Ethics Committee Task Force is in the midst of updating the association's ethics code and APA's Board of Directors is discussing ways of modifying the process for adjudicating ethics charges. Behnke says those possible changes make this a potent moment to help influence the future work.
Beyond that, what he finds so powerful in educating psychologists about ethics and the law, is the natural confluence of the three perspectives: In most cases, he says, "Good clinical care is good law and good ethics."