Attorney Articles | Understanding the Role of the CAMFT Ethics Committee

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Understanding the Role of the CAMFT Ethics Committee

Understanding the Role of the CAMFT Ethics Committee An Interview with CAMFT Ethics Committee Chair, Irving Zaroff, JD, LMFT

The Therapist
March/April 2016

This article is based upon an interview conducted by CAMFT staff attorney Mike Griffin, JD, LCSW, with Irving Zaroff, JD, LMFT, the current chairperson of the CAMFT Ethics Committee.

Mike G: First of all, thank you for taking this opportunity to be interviewed about your experience as a member of the CAMFT Ethics Committee. While members of CAMFT are often knowledgeable regarding the CAMFT Code of Ethics, many individuals may be less familiar with the CAMFT Ethics Committee and the role that it plays in developing, interpreting and applying the Association’s ethical codes. 2 3 Based upon your experience as a member of the Ethics Committee, including your current role as committee chair, I think that you are in a great position to help our members understand what it is that the Ethics Committee does.

Why don’t we begin by asking you to provide some information about yourself. When and why did you first become involved with the Ethics Committee?

Irv Z: Well, by way of background, I have been an adherent of serendipity, which has led me through many career paths. My undergraduate degree was in accounting, my planned professional pursuit. But I got accepted into law school, and shifted directions. I worked as an accountant during law school. After a short law practice I found myself involved in various businesses, but primarily in the garment industry manufacturing women’s jeans in a company I co-founded called Ditto. It was only after many years led me to personal therapy that my career once again shifted toward marriage and family therapy some 25 years ago. So I am a hybrid and now apply my varied backgrounds to providing divorce mediation.

In 2008, I was asked to make a presentation to the CAMFT Board of Directors. After that meeting, then President of CAMFT, Patrick Healy, invited me to join the Ethics Committee. I have to admit, that although familiar with the Ethics Code, and having taught it in a Master’s Program and in workshops, I really knew little about the Ethics Committee.

Mike G: You have served as a committee member, and currently occupy the role of chairperson of the committee. How would you describe the process taken with each complaint?

Irv Z: From the first I was struck by the immense talent and diversity of the Committee Members. I believe that four of the members at the time were former presidents of CAMFT. It did not take long for me to understand the way the Committee envisioned its role. Every case begins with preparation by reading all the materials submitted by complainants (often quite voluminous) and reviewing potential Ethical Code violations before a discussion to determine if the complaint is both credible and has described behavior that, if true, would be a violation of the Ethics Code. Everyone has an opinion and no case escapes without a vigorous “battle” that leads to a consensus. In those cases that the Committee finds a potential violation of the Code, the CAMFT member is sent a copy of the complaint and a request for response. Committee members again read through all the materials provided by the accused CAMFT member. Passionate discussion among Committee members ultimately leads to one of the following outcomes: The Committee may decide that the complaint does not warrant any action and the case is closed without a finding of a violation of the ethical code. Alternately, the Committee may decide that additional information is needed in order to determine whether an ethical violation may have occurred. In that instance, the Committee may pose written questions to the complaining party and will ask the accused member to respond to the allegations and to provide his or her perspective on the issues that are raised. Depending on the complexity of the case and the availability of information, the process of investigating a complaint may be relatively brief and straightforward, (if the facts are clear that an ethical violation did, or did not occur), or a lengthier investigation may be called for. On occasion, a member may be invited to personally meet with the Committee, in order to discuss the issues and to arrive at a resolution.

When it is determined that a member did, in fact, violate the CAMFT Code of Ethics, the Committee attempts to resolve the matter by entering into a Settlement by Mutual Agreement (“SMA”) with the member, wherein the member is asked to agree to satisfy conditions which are related to the ethical issues in his or her case. The conditions which are included in an SMA vary, and may include the involvement of a practice monitor, participation in counseling, attending workshops, or reading articles, etc., to name a few examples. The Committee also has the option of issuing a cautionary letter to a member. The purpose of a cautionary letter is to educate and advise him or her as to specific ethical issues in order to avoid future potential problems with ethics complaints, disciplinary actions, or civil litigation concerning his or her professional conduct.

It is important to note that the activity of the Ethics Committee is confidential. A complainant is only informed whether there was a finding of no violation, or, whether the Committee elected to take corrective action in response to his or her complaint. The contents of an SMA are also confidential and once a member satisfies the conditions stated in his or her SMA, the matter is closed. In all cases, the intent of the Committee is not to impose punishment, but rather to inform and educate the member as to the ethical issues involved.

It may be helpful to consider the activity of the Ethics Committee during the calendar year 2015. In that 12-month period, the Committee handled a total of 16 cases, seven of which were new, and nine of which were carried over from 2014. Of those 16 cases, four were closed without a finding of an ethical violation, three resulted in a signed SMA, and one member was issued a letter of caution.

As to the other eight cases, four are currently being “held in abeyance,” which means that action is being withheld in those cases pending the outcome of ongoing investigations by the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS). The remaining four cases are subject to ongoing current investigations. In addition to the foregoing activity, the Ethics Committee enters into a special category of SMAs with members of CAMFT who have been subject to disciplinary action by the BBS. In such instances, the member is usually offered an SMA by the Ethics Committee, the terms and conditions of which state that the Committee will not pursue an investigation against the member, so long as he or she satisfies the conditions of his or her probationary agreement with the BBS. When the member completes the terms of his or her BBS probation, his or her case is closed by the Ethics Committee. At any given moment in time, there are usually 15 to 20 “probation monitoring SMAs” that are subject to the oversight of the Ethics Committee.

In addition, the Committee spends a considerable amount of time devoted to the development of proposed revisions to the CAMFT Code of Ethics. The last revision to the Code was completed in 2011, culminating four years of work. In 2015, the Committee once again began the process of engaging in a comprehensive review of the Code, and the project is anticipated to last a minimum of two years.

As far as the last three plus years serving as the Chair of the Committee, it has been rewarding and daunting. My predecessor was a hard act to follow. Wise, knowledgeable and compassionate, he led in a way that would make any CAMFT member proud. I have done my best to live up to his legacy and ensure all new Committee members remember that our goals are to help the community and our CAMFT members through education, and if necessary, rehabilitation.

Mike G: As a staff attorney that is assigned to assist the Ethics Committee, I know that committee members often invest a substantial amount of time and energy in fulfilling their duties4. I think it would be helpful for members of CAMFT to have a clear and accurate understanding of what it is that committee members actually do. Can you provide an overview of the major areas of responsibility of the Ethics Committee and describe the work that is ordinarily conducted by committee members?

Irv Z: I can say that the workload was much greater than I thought. CAMFT members and complainants only get a fair result if the Committee puts in the time, effort, and careful consideration that is required. We all know that a CAMFT member’s professional reputation is at risk and we take nothing lightly. But I love the work. It is often stimulating and you really get the feeling you are making a positive difference.

Mike G: In my experience, CAMFT members who are appointed to serve on the Ethics Committee are a very experienced group. What can you tell our members about the individuals who are appointed to serve on this committee? 5

Irv Z: The skill set required for an Ethics Committee member is varied, though most members have taught law and ethics in some capacity. This gives the members the background in the Code, as well as the practical application for educating members who may have erred. Committee members are selected by the President of CAMFT. Recommendations come from different sources including myself as Chair, CAMFT staff, and members of the Board of Directors. Members can also apply to be considered to be a member of the Ethics Committee. Our current Committee members include two non-practicing lawyers (I’m one) who have learned the balance between a legal approach and one that recognizes the humanity of our profession. We have an expert in the field of child custody evaluations. We have a renowned supervisor of supervisors. We have Committee members that teach law and ethics in various colleges and universities. Our current makeup includes three women and four men. Both Northern and Southern California are represented. We have a variety of therapeutic orientations and practice demographics. All this diversity helps in our efforts to understand what transpired between the therapist and the complainant. Every Committee member’s voice is heard—loud and clear.

Mike G: As a general rule, most therapists try very hard to practice in an ethical manner, but even well-intended therapists can become the subject of an ethics complaint. Many therapists are understandably frightened of such a possibility and may see the Ethics Committee as an entity that is determined to punish therapists or to end their careers. For a therapist who may feel this way, is there anything that you would like him or her to know?

Irv Z: A big revelation to me is that complaints to the Ethics Committee are often about cases where therapists have lost their footing by over involvement with their clients. It is not typical of issues the licensing board receives. Most of the complaints revolve around clients that either felt abandoned or betrayed by their therapist (or their child’s therapist). Even when action does constitute a violation it is rarely with malice or ill-intention. But, these are opportunities for therapists that have lost sight of their professional responsibilities to learn and correct. One important factor for CAMFT members to know is that we are very conscientious about confidentiality. When a CAMFT member has violated a section of the Ethics Code, a proposal will be made to resolve the issue with additional education, consultation or other appropriate measures. Once the agreement is satisfied, the case is closed and never made public (unlike BBS cases, Ethics Committee cases are not published in The Therapist magazine). Meanwhile the therapist has improved his or her understanding of practice requirements.

Mike G: The role that is played by the Ethics Committee is important, and there is a lot more that we could discuss here. But given the limited scope of this interview, let me ask you a final question: Is there anything that you would recommend to our members that may help them in their day-to-day efforts to practice in an ethical manner?

Irv. Z: My partner in our divorce mediation practice is an MFT and we have worked together in a number of therapy endeavors. She will often say to me that she is so ethically conservative because of our discussions over issues that arise. So to answer your question, I think a key to ethical practice is taking the Ethics Code seriously, being familiar with its sections, and developing a system to manage ethical issues as they arise. Key elements of such a system would be the recognition of a potential problem (like the hair being raised at the back of your neck), trying to articulate what the issue might be, and developing a plan to manage it–having consultation and peer supervision is often the most important ingredient (the CAMFT legal staff is often a good starting point). As a final note, I think it is relevant to recognize that over the year the Ethics Committee receives 10 to 15 new complaints (not counting monitoring cases of BBS discipline). Out of some 30,000 CAMFT members it speaks well of our profession as a whole. My term on the Committee will be up in June of 2016, but I am secure in the knowledge that the historical approach of the Committee will continue as a guidepost for our CAMFT members and a valuable aid to those in need.

Michael Griffin, JD, LCSW, is a staff attorney at CAMFT. Michael is available to answer member calls regarding legal, ethical, and licensure issues.



1 See, Griffin, Michael, JD, LCSW, ‘The Role of the CAMFT Ethics Committee,” The Therapist, March/April, 2012.

CAMFT Bylaws, Article Vii, Section (B)(3), Members of the CAMFT Ethics Committee are appointed the President of the Board of Directors for a two-year term of office, for a maximum of four terms. CAMFT Bylaws require that the Committee consist of no less than five, nor more than seven members, all of whom must be clinical members of the Association for at least two years prior to their appointment. The Ethics Committee cannot contain members of the Board of Directors.

3 The CAMFT Code of Ethics is comprised of two parts: Part I provides the Standards. Part II provides the Procedures to be followed in the investigation of an ethics complaint.

4 CAMFT Staff attorney Michael Griffin, JD, LCSW, and CAMFT paralegal Alain Montgomery, JD, provide legal and administrative support to the Ethics Committee.

5 All of the CAMFT Committees and their members are listed on the CAMFT website, At the time of this writing, the Ethics Committee consists of: Irving Zaroff (chair), Darlene Davis, Sharon Duffy, Dean Lobovits, Angela Mohan, Ian Russ and Roger Schwarz.