Ethics Rounds

The following letter was sent to Dr. Martin Manosevitz, current president of the Colorado Psychological Association (CPA), who had invited the APA Ethics Office to give a workshop in the fall of 2006. Following the presentation, Dr. Manosevitz asked that I explain why a psychologist should join a psychological association that adjudicates ethics complaints-including APA-since doing so potentially subjects the psychologist to multiple adjudicatory processes. Below is my response. "Ethics Rounds" thanks the Colorado Psychological Association Bulletin for permission to reprint the letter.

Dear Dr. Manosevitz,

Thank you for your letter, in which you ask that I reply to the Colorado Psychological Association Bulletin regarding an aspect of membership in the Colorado and American Psychological Associations. The question you pose, which arose following my presentation to the CPA membership this past October, regards the wisdom of a psychologist joining both the state and the national associations, given the possibility that a complaint could then be filed in three possible venues: the ethics committee of each association and the Colorado licensing board. I am very happy torespond to your important question and appreciate your making space available in the CPA bulletin for me to do so.

Please let me emphasize that I understand the concern. Having spoken to many psychologists who have been the subject of a licensing board or ethics committee complaint, the process can be experienced as traumatic, even if the committee or board completely vindicates the psychologist. For the duration of the matter, the psychologist feels under a cloud and may experience significant stress on both a professional and a personal level. Every complaint takes a toll.

I believe it is helpful to begin my response by placing these concerns in the context of the considerable benefits that one receives from joining the Colorado and American Psychological Associations. The associations are aggressive advocates for psychologists in multiple arenas, such as the legislatures, the courts and the public sector. In today's marketplace, there are multiple groups that press their interests and seek resources before the state and national legislatures. It is essential that the psychological associations have a strong presence, which happens when the associations represent a significant percentage of psychologists in the jurisdiction. We can rest assured that other professions will claim a place at the legislative table. Psychology protects its interests and those of the individuals and groups we serve through our vigorous involvement in all aspects of the legislative process. Mental health parity is one example of many critical legislative issues the associations advance; the fight against managed-care abuses is another. One area of focus for CPA's legislative efforts has been unfair practice disparities between psychologists and psychiatrists. CPA has secured legislation-two pieces, in fact-that authorize psychologists to perform adult and juvenile competency examinations, thus expanding psychologists' scope of practice in the state.

Likewise, state and federal courts hear cases that affect the practice of psychology. As an example, important laws on confidentiality have developed through legal cases. I had the pleasure of discussing one such case, Jaffee vs. Redmond (United States Supreme Court, 1996) with the CPA membership in October. It is vital that the associations track the developments in the judicial arena and become involved, such as the American Psychological Association did as an amicus curiae(friend of the court) in the Jaffe case, which established a federal testimonial privilege for mental health professionals.

Membership in the psychological associations offers a variety of other benefits, including a community of professional colleagues; the availability of numerous professional resources such as journals, conferences and continuing-education seminars for less expense than for nonmembers; and multiple possibilities for networking and referrals both in-person and on association listservs.

It is therefore important to consider the concerns you have brought to my attention regarding what has been referred to as "double and even triple jeopardy" in light of the many benefits of association membership. Moreover, I believe that a careful look at our ethics programs will show that far from providing a reason not to join the associations, ethics provides yet another argument for membership, for three reasons.

First, approximately eight years ago the APA Board of Directors conducted an extensive review of the national ethics program. The result of this review was that the APA Ethics Office and Committee were to focus on developing the ethics program as a resource for members. Since 2000, the APA ethics program has significantly developed its education and consultation activities; last year the Ethics Office offered 40 ethics workshops around the country. Eighteen continuing-education programs were sponsored with state psychological associations, and I am very pleased that CPA was one of the associations with which the APA Ethics Office had the opportunity to collaborate. In addition, each year the APA Ethics Office answers hundreds of calls from APA members seeking ethical guidance. Recently we have developed a Web-based system for the APA Ethics Committee to offer consultations in between its regularly scheduled meetings. Likewise, the CPA Ethics Committee provides ethics consultations as a benefit of membership. Together, APA and CPA actively seek to promote ethical behavior through offering ethics education and consultation to our members.

Second, a look at the annual archival issue of the American Psychologist, which is published each August, will show that ethics adjudication is now placed squarely in the context of the education and consultation components of the APA ethics program. I would encourage any psychologist who believes that APA has an overactive adjudication program to look at the past several issues. A relevant aspect of the rules and procedures that govern the APA ethics process allows APA to stay a complaint that has simultaneously been filed with the state licensing board (that is, to put a complaint "on hold" until the licensing board has made its decision); this option is frequently applied. I am confident the data will make clear that APA is more focused on promoting ethical behavior than on punishment.

Finally, I firmly believe, based on my experiences at APA, that the vast majority of psychologists bring to their work a high level of competence and a desire to abide by the highest ethical standards. Unfortunately, there are rare individual psychologists who engage in behavior that causes significant harm and that casts aspersion upon the profession. Both APA and CPA have an interest in responding to harmful behavior in a manner that sends a clear message about psychology's core values. Thus, the associations retain the prerogative to respond when a member engages in behavior that any competent and ethical psychologist would recognize as outside the bounds of acceptable and ethical practice. Far from a reason not to join an association, this role, in my opinion, is one that members can take pride in having their association adopt.

I hope I have been responsive to the questions raised by your members. As always, I am very pleased to discuss this matter further with you or with any CPA member, either in public or in confidence.

Stephen Behnke
Director, Ethics Office
American Psychological Association.

Further Reading

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Previous "Ethics Rounds" columns can be found at APA Ethics Office, in the "From the Director" section.