The board responsible for protecting the public from bad counselors and non-medical therapists is slow to handle complaints, state Auditor General Debra Davenport said Friday.

In a report to the Legislature, Davenport said more than half the complaints closed by the Board of Behavioral Health Examiners in the last two years were not resolved within six months, the standard generally used to evaluate how all regulatory boards do their jobs. And she said the issue is more than academic.

"Lengthy complaint resolution times can put public safety at risk because licensees can continue practicing unchecked until the board takes action,'' Davenport said.

For example, she said it took the board nine months to revoke the license of someone charged with "inappropriate, nontherapeutic conduct'' when providing home-based therapy for a 16-year-old client.

Davenport said the board's own documents show it did not begin substantial investigation until more than 4 1/2 months after receiving the complaint. And once an investigation began, the staff found that three of this person's prior supervisors had concerns about his failure to maintain appropriate professional boundaries.

Ultimately the investigation found that the licensee had stayed at the client's house very late on several occasions, gave the client a massage and bought some clothing for the teen. The license was revoked only after the person signed a consent agreement.

Davenport said the board has acted more quickly in situations where there was sufficient evidence to summarily restrict or suspend a license.

Aside from dangers to the public, Davenport said the long period of time to resolve complaints can harm those regulated by the board if it turns out nothing wrong had been done. She said someone with an open complaint can find it difficult to obtain a new job or new professional liability insurance.

And while complaint allegations and investigations are confidential, Davenport said potential clients can find out on the board's web site whether individuals have a pending complaint against them.

Davenport said board officials told her staff that the number and severity of complaints have increased during the past few years. At the same time, they said the board has been hindered by vacancies in its investigative staff.

One solution, she suggested, is having the board do a better job of analyzing complaints to determine which should be given the highest priority.

For example, inappropriate sexual contact with a client, borrowing money from a client and inappropriate actions toward those who are being supervised all were classified as high priority, "even though the risk to the public varied among these types of allegations.''

In a formal response to the report, Debra Rinaudo, the board's executive director, said her agency already is working to implement changes suggested.

The board regulates and licenses counselors who work with individuals and families to treat mental, behavior and emotional problems, marriage and family therapists, social workers who provide services through various organizations and schools, and substance abuse counselors who specialize in addiction prevention, treatment, recovery support and education.

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