It is hard to imagine any profession allowing a member found guilty of serious professional misconduct to just carry on working. Yet this is just what happens under the current regulatory regime for counselling and psychotherapy in the UK. Counsellor and psychotherapist are not “protected terms” – anyone can set themselves up as such without training or experience and continue to practice in spite of misconduct findings against them. Professional organisations such as the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), which accredit members and enforce standards, are overseen by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA), which is ultimately answerable to Parliament. However, even if the BACP expels a member from its register for misconduct, there is nothing to stop that member joining another professional, if any will have them, or just going it alone as an independent. This system is clearly flawed and means that the public, including those in vulnerable mental states, are not adequately protected from rogue therapists who may, at worse, abuse their clients. The potential risk is magnified if it is a counselling service which has been found at fault and then goes on to operate just as it likes and to its own standards.
This is exactly what has happened in South West England, where Exeter based Phoenix Counselling Services has had its membership of the BACP withdrawn as a result of serious professional misconduct. Phoenix, which runs Palace Gate Counselling in Exeter (http://www.palacegatecounselling.org.uk/) and Taunton Counselling Service in Taunton (http://www.tauntoncounsellingservice.org.uk/) , mishandled the relationship with two of its counsellors and supervisees to the extent that the BACP found it to have a contravened “the ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, justice and self-respect”. Furthermore, Phoenix was found to lack “the personal moral qualities of empathy, integrity, respect, humility, competence, fairness and wisdom to which practitioners are strongly encouraged to aspire”. Phoenix would appear to have broken so many rules of therapeutic ethics that you would have expected its directors to start reconsidering their careers. Details of the case against Phoenix can be found on the BACP website (http://www.bacp.co.uk/prof_conduct/notices/termination.php).
Phoenix did not apparently appeal the BACP decision. Instead, it published a long, self-justifying blog post (http://palacegatecounsellingservice.wordpress.com/the-conflict/) and withdrew its BACP membership before it was pushed. It has, to date, offered no apology, demonstrated no self-reflection, and announced no review of its practices or systems. It did, however, criticise the BACP process to which it had to submit as lacking in accountability. For an organisation offering counselling, an activity that requires self-reflection from both its practitioners and its clients, to receive such severe criticism and yet conclude that it has nothing to learn is mindboggling. Standards of organisational behaviour so poor as those found by the BACP would never be tolerated in UK public services nor in the majority of public or private companies. So here we have a counselling service that not only fails on many of the requirements of its own profession, but also acts in a way that would be unacceptable in most other professional and commercial contexts within our society.
Phoenix’s response to this process demonstrates not only a breath-taking degree of arrogance, but also a deep level of cognitive dissonance. Despite having been found ethically wanting, their blog insists on claiming that it offers “a person-centred service to our clients” and operates “on person-centred lines as an organisation” (http://palacegatecounsellingservice.wordpress.com/about/). In particular, they claim that “we do not go in for proliferating prescriptive rules and policies”; a useful tendency if you are intent on working to a different set of standards to everyone else. Far from putting effort into self-reflection, Phoenix’s response to the BACP findings is a mishmash of humanistic blog posts, e.g. Lao Tsu on Change or Carl Rogers on People and Sunsets, as if to demonstrate high ethical standards by association. Moreover, it is almost sinister for an organisation to blog on A Person-Centred Take on Conflict Resolution two days after it gets chucked out of the UK’s leading professional association for serious misconduct. Phoenix appears to have a self-righteous agenda that is either blind to or dismissive of any form of criticism or censure.
The BACP findings against Phoenix concern its handling of its counsellors and supervisees, not its clients. However, for an organisation that claims to see some 160 clients a week and between 400 to 500 clients each year, surely a review of its practices is required to ensure that the problems found in its relations with staff do not extend to its clients. But yet, under the current UK regulations, no one can force Phoenix to undertake such a review or reassure the communities that use its services. Phoenix appears likely to carry on just as before.
Local media, councillors and MPs should make clear their concern on this point and encourage Phoenix to reassure its service users. If no such public pressure is brought to bear, we can only hope that prospective clients do their research online, and ask themselves if such an organisation is likely to offer an effective, ethical service and seek the necessary assurances from Phoenix itself. Local GPs should also consider whether they would wish to refer clients to a counselling service that fails to respond to professional censure. Local colleges and training organisations should ensure that trainee counsellors are not engaged at Phoenix on placement unless the BACP findings are taken on board and practices and procedures overhauled.
Therapy is a profession where you can break the rules and suffer no practical professional sanction. The majority of therapists work ethically and do the best with their clients. All therapists make mistakes and clients have a right to raise those issues with professional bodies. That way we can protect clients and learn as a profession, and the BACP has a good track record of assisting practitioners to reflect on and learn from their client complaints and continue working. However, there are bad apples in every profession, and therapy is no exception. Stronger regulation is needed to highlight misconduct and implement sanctions as appropriate. The fact that a counselling service can thumb its nose at the standards the rest of the profession hold dear and go on working with clients, including vulnerable individuals, without any external intervention is a scandal.