B.C. Green Party leader pushes for regulation of counsellors and social workers with private member's bill

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B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau says full regulation of counselling, therapy and social work would help create a 'comprehensive system of mental health care' in the province. (Michael McArthur/CBC - image credit)
B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau says full regulation of counselling, therapy and social work would help create a 'comprehensive system of mental health care' in the province. (Michael McArthur/CBC - image credit)

The leader of the B.C. Green Party is tabling legislation she believes could lead to therapy, counselling and social work finally becoming fully regulated in this province.

Sonia Furstenau is introducing a private member's bill on Wednesday afternoon that would amend the Health Professions Act so the health minister is compelled to take action when regulation of a profession is determined to be in the public interest.

"Given the growing recognition of the mental health crisis that is upon us and has been made much, much worse by COVID-19, we need to move forward with solutions as quickly as possible," Furstenau told CBC News.

"This is an important step in getting a comprehensive system of mental health care in British Columbia."

As it stands, literally anyone can call themselves a therapist or counsellor and start advertising their services to British Columbians. There is no required training or education, and no official body with the power to issue licences and hold practitioners accountable for misconduct.

Social work, on the other hand, is partially regulated. Registration with the B.C. College of Social Workers is only mandatory for some, and there is a long list of exemptions for social workers who aren't required to join the college.

Furstenau described regulation as recognition of the professional care provided by counsellors and social workers in B.C., but also a way to prevent harm to vulnerable people searching for help.

"What we want to establish, first and foremost, is real transparency so that you can know exactly what kind of care you're accessing," she said.

Amendment closes 'loopholes'

The consequences of not regulating these professions can be serious, Furstenau argues.

She pointed to the examples of Pamela Sleeth, a Vancouver therapist who groomed and sexually abused one of her patients, and Robert Riley Saunders, a Kelowna man who lied about his qualifications as a social worker and has been accused of pocketing funds meant for dozens of foster children.

Regulation would "ensure that if there are any challenges or issues with a counsellor or their behaviour, that there would be an avenue by which a patient would be able to seek a remedy," Furstenau said.

Bernadine Fox, shown here at left in 2001, was abused for years by her therapist Pamela Sleeth, at right.
Bernadine Fox, shown here at left in 2001, was abused for years by her therapist Pamela Sleeth, at right.(Submitted by Bernadine Fox)

The push to regulate psychotherapy dates back decades, but government after government has declined to take action.

In December, the Federation of Associations for Counselling Therapists in B.C. (FACTBC) submitted a formal application to Health Minister Adrian Dix, calling for urgent regulation of the profession.

But Dix rejected that effort in a Feb. 9 letter, writing that the government won't consider regulation of any new health professions until a new oversight body for health professional colleges is in place.

He repeated that sentiment on Wednesday, saying it wouldn't make sense to create a new college for counsellors and therapists while B.C. is still working on a plan to modernize the regulation system and collapse the number of existing colleges from 20 to six.

"There are other professions that have been waiting for a significant period of time for self regulation," Dix told reporters, mentioning respiratory therapists in particular.

"The challenge with counsellors has always been the diversity of those who call themselves counsellors."

However, he did not directly address Furstenau's proposed amendments to the Health Professions Act.

FACTBC chair Glen Grigg said he "enthusiastically supports" Furstenau's effort.

"Lack of clarity in the current legislation has allowed successive governments to avoid their duty to protect the public by delaying, delegating, and deferring statutory regulation of counselling therapy," Grigg said in a news release.

"This amendment closes those loopholes, spells out the duty of the Minister of Health to act, and makes clear that mental health is an essential part of the health-care system."

The bill also has the support of the B.C. Association of Social Workers.

"Consideration of the public interest should lead the B.C. government to require that all social workers be registered with their regulatory college by removing all exemptions prescribed in the Social Workers Act Regulation," association president Michael Crawford said.