A new Senate report is calling for more regulation of California's substance abuse counselors amid disclosures that sex offenders and other convicted criminals are working in the industry.
The report, by the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, details lapses with the reporting and oversight process for the state's 36,000 registered or certified substance abuse counselors, as well as cases of counselors who were able to continue to work in the field even if their original certification was revoked or they failed to complete training requirements.
The investigation identified at least 23 registered sex offenders certified as drug and alcohol abuse counselors, a finding the report calls "the most dramatic example of the pitfalls of the state choosing to ignore criminal histories."
Unlike most large states, California does not require criminal or other background checks for drug and alcohol abuse counselors. The agency that regulates the counselors, the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, also does not track arrests or convictions that occur after certification, leaving it up to the employers and private certification agencies, including several based in Sacramento, to discover and report issues with counselors.
That arrangement had, in some cases, allowed individuals with criminal backgrounds or ongoing substance abuse issues to remain eligible to treat patients seeking help with their addictions.
"Their names are posted on a public registry because they are considered dangerous even after they have served their time," the report reads. "Those who work as drug and alcohol counselors enter a field that relies to an unusual degree of trust - and honoring of boundaries - between counselor and client."
The report also found examples of certified counselors who committed crimes while authorized to serve as counselors, including one woman with a history of theft convictions who stole $55,000 from a client. Another man was in prison for drug possession for one-third of the time he was certified to provide drug counseling services.
Four individuals were convicted of driving under the influence while certified to be counselors, including one registered counselor who took a 12-hour class ordered as part of a DUI sentence from the Brenning Institute, the agency that employed him as a counselor.
In addition to the lack of background checks and other reporting requirements, the Senate report blames a "hybrid system filled with gaps and inconsistencies" for the shortfalls.
Prospective counselors can also register with any one of seven different private agencies, which the report contends has allowed counselors whose certification was revoked to apply and be approved through a different agency. That structure, as well as a lack of oversight, has also allowed some counselors to remain certified without completing required education or training.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he supports added oversight of addiction counselors, saying the report "speaks to the need for urgent action."
"So often the argument that there's too much regulation gets all the space. Well here's an example of where government ought to be doing more, and certainly I think there's a proper role for the state in protecting clients and others who are trying to overcome addiction."
The report makes several recommendations for addressing the shortcomings, including giving the state the authority to regulate the counselors. It also suggests requiring the independent certifying organizations to conduct criminal or other background checks and setting up an independent panel to consult on counselor eligibility.
Call Torey Van Oot, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5544. Follow her on Twitter @capitolalert.