On Oct. 11, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 788 into law, making California the 50th and final state to license professional counselors.

“This is a momentous occasion,” said American Counseling Association President Lynn Linde. “Now all 50 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have licensure. What this means is that professional counseling is now recognized in all areas of the country and, more important, that protections for the consumers will now exist everywhere. Licensure for counselors significantly expands the availability of mental health services, which is crucial to helping meet the need for services.”

California began regulating the marriage and family therapy (MFT) field in the 1960s as a consumer protection, says A. Dean Porter, president of the California Coalition for Counselor Licensure (CCCL), which led the counselor licensure effort in the Golden State. “Since then, those who wanted to do mental health counseling have pursued the MFT license. Those who wanted to do school counseling earned the Pupil Personnel Services credential. Those who wanted to do career or rehab counseling could practice without a license,” explains Porter, an ACA member who worked as a career counselor in private practice for many years.

As executive director of the California Registry for Professional Counselors, Porter received calls and e-mails from licensed counselors across the country asking how they could get licensed in California. “I had to respond that the only licenses available in California at the master’s level were the LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) and the MFT licenses,” she says. “The MFT license requires that the graduate degree focus on marriage and family, so many LPCs were unable to qualify.”

Approximately 10 years ago, Porter began educating herself on counselor licensure and presenting workshops at conferences in California about counselor licensure in other states. Then, in 2002, she convened a meeting of representatives of existing professional counseling associations in California. “Twelve of these organizations — three have since dropped out — formed the California Coalition for Counselor Licensure with the purpose of initiating state regulation of professional counselors through licensure,” Porter says. “Although there were separate attempts over the years by career counselors and rehabilitation counselors to be licensed, the recent effort by the CCCL is the first serious, well-orchestrated, persistent attempt to license counselors in California.”

CCCL’s first bill was introduced in 2005, the second in 2007. The third — and, ultimately, successful — bill was introduced in January by Republican Sen. Mark Wyland and Democratic Sen. Darrell Steinberg and received bipartisan support. Porter says the bill had the support of the Board of Behavioral Sciences, which will regulate the license, and the California Psychiatric Association. CCCL also had the cooperation and neutrality of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the California Society for Clinical Social Work and the California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “After five years, we were able to work things out with the California Psychological Association and the California Chapter of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy so that SB 788 was not opposed when it went for the final votes,” Porter says.

“CCCL could not have accomplished this goal if it were not for the support of ACA and the National Board for Certified Counselors,” she adds. “Both organizations were generous with financial and technical support.” Like many other states, California is facing a shortage of mental health providers. Adding well-qualified LPCCs into the workforce will help address that need, Porter says. California’s new pool of professional counselors will also be able to provide more access to the underserved and enable the state to participate in federally funded programs, such as providing for veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Scott Barstow, ACA’s director of public policy and legislation, says California becoming the 50th state to license counselors will help increase the profession’s visibility. “One of the hurdles the counseling profession has always faced is that the word counselor is so generic,” he says. “Now we’re at a point where every state in the country has established pretty comparable minimum standards for being licensed as a counselor, so that word really starts meaning something.”

The bill will go into effect Jan. 1, after which time California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences will work on implementing it. There will be a six-month grandfathering period from Jan. 1, 2011, through June 30, 2011, and applications for the license will be available Jan. 1, 2012. Interested counselors can read a summary of requirements and keep abreast of updates by visiting the CCCL website at caccl.org. Now that licensure is finally established in California, the next step will be ensuring an organization is in place to protect and maintain the license, Porter says. CCCL is exploring what that organization might be.

“Today is a victory for so many counselors who have been advocating for licensure in California,” said ACA Executive Director Richard Yep upon the bill being signed into law. “This legislation will serve to regulate the profession of counseling, and that is good for the profession and for consumers of mental health services. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s signing of this bill caps an effort that began more than 30 years ago when no state licensure existed. We express our appreciation to all who were so critical in this important effort.”

The road to 50

Bob Pate vividly remembers when Virginia became the first state to license professional counselors. The year was 1976, and Carl Swanson — whom Pate refers to as the “father of counselor licensure” — was leading the charge. Pate, professor emeritus of the University of Virginia Counselor Education Program, was then a young assistant professor who helped Swanson and a group of others push for licensure. The effort began after a court case in Virginia opened the door for counseling to be recognized as a separate profession from psychology. Swanson, a counselor educator at James Madison University who was also an attorney, enlisted others to help, Pate says.

Swanson was wise enough to understand that the licensure effort needed to be cohesive and involve everyone in the counseling profession, not just the subset of people who wanted to be in private practice, Pate says. Some advocates also wanted the license to be at the doctoral level, he remembers, but Swanson knew setting the bar at the master’s level would get more people behind the effort. “His genius was seeing that this was never getting started unless it was a movement of the united counseling profession,” says Pate, a member of ACA. Putting things in perspective, before Virginia made history, counseling wasn’t recognized as a legitimate licensed profession, Pate says. But the 1976 passage of the counselor licensure bill in Virginia spread hope around the country. “It energized people to think, ’Gee, this is really possible,’” Pate says. “Virginia was all but held up as an example.”

By the dawning of the new millennium, 44 other states and the District of Columbia had followed suit with Virginia and passed counselor licensure legislation, but counselors in California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, New York and Puerto Rico were still struggling to achieve recognition. Judith Ritterman, executive director of the New York Mental Health Counselors Association, worked for 11 years on the effort in New York before a bill passed through the state Legislature in 2002. Before the passage of counselor licensure legislation, New York had almost 40 graduate school programs offering counseling, Ritterman remembers, but options for employment for those graduates were few and far between without licensing. “There was really only one thing to do, and that was to work on getting licensed,” she says.

Ritterman credits on-the-ground efforts for the bill’s eventual success. “We established a massive grassroots effort, and when you have a large-scale grassroots effort, it’s unlikely to fail,” she says. But licensure is only the beginning, Ritterman emphasizes, adding that subsequent steps include revising language in the bill, getting insurance reimbursement and educating government agencies and the public about who counselors are. Sandra Joy Eastlack, a program specialist in Hawaii’s Department of Human Services, served as president of the Hawaii Counselors Association from 2006 to 2007. She estimates that she and her colleagues spent approximately 20,000 hours working to get counselor licensure passed in Hawaii. HCA and the Hawaii Rehabilitation Counselors Association joined together to form the Alliance for Professional Counselor Licensure in an effort to push through legislation. After years of hard work, a bill passed in 2004, and after the sunset date, the governor signed it into permanent law in 2008.

Eastlack says the licensure goal was finally attained only because of constant effort. Previously, she says, Hawaii counselors had tied all their hopes to a single bill or to a single year’s effort and didn’t regroup and try again once the initial attempt failed. But one-shot thinking doesn’t work with legislation, Eastlack says, so she committed herself to seeing counselor licensure through in Hawaii, no matter how long it took.

Looking ahead

Even though all 50 states have finally secured counselor licensure, ACA’s Barstow says there’s no reason for counselors to stop their advocacy efforts now. Many lofty goals still remain for the profession. One is having counselors included in Medicare, and another is getting counselors recognized under defense health care programs. It’s Barstow’s hope that the profession’s long and concerted effort to earn licensure in every state will pave the way for even more advances. “Being licensed in all 50 states will make it easier to convince federal policy makers that now is the time to get those (other) things done,” he says.

License reciprocity is another major goal for the counseling profession — one the American Association of State Counseling Boards is fully behind. “Reciprocity is a commendable goal for AASCB to help states achieve,” says Chris Greene, AASCB president and chair of the North Carolina Board for Licensed Professional Counselors. “The National Credential Registry is the logical vehicle to move these efforts along. Each state’s board will have to decide exactly how reciprocity fits in with its state’s statutes regarding licensure. Now that all states have counselor licensure, it seems to me that our next efforts might be cooperative work for reciprocity insofar as our individual statutes will permit.”

Thomas Sweeney, professor emeritus at Ohio University and executive director of Chi Sigma Iota Counseling Academic & Professional Honor Society International, echoes the need for licensure to translate from state to state. “Because of all the changes made by legislators responding to pressures from other providers, there is a lack of portability of credentials among the states,” says Sweeney, a past president of ACA. “Establishing compatibility among the laws or at least some means of states accepting another state’s credential must be a high priority for professional counseling.”

Not only would a move toward reciprocity help individual counselors, it would also help the profession, says Sam Gladding, professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University and a past president of ACA. “Portability of licensure and a unification of standards in the various states is the next step forward,” Gladding says. “If we can achieve these two goals, we will be better yet as a profession, and the public we serve will be better off because they will be assured of who we are as professionals and as a profession.”

Thirty-three years after Virginia passed the first national counselor licensure bill, Pate is still looking ahead. “I have great pride in seeing what Virginia started (in the counseling profession) nearing completion,” he says. “We still need to work on equal employment and reimbursement opportunities. But 50 is a great milestone.”

Lynne Shallcross is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org. Letters to the editor:ct@counseling.org