California's lax rules governing who can work as substance abuse counselors have allowed sex offenders and other felons to treat addicts with little to no scrutiny by the state, according to a report by the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes released Monday.
California does not require a criminal background check for drug and alcohol counselors, nor does it ask applicants to report their criminal histories, according to the report, which found that at least 23 sex offenders have been permitted to work as counselors since 2005.
"Almost all other large states want to know about serious convictions before credentialing drug and alcohol counselors, even if the disclosure doesn't automatically disqualify them," the report states.
California has approximately 36,000 registered or certified counselors working in 2,534 private or publicly funded drug and alcohol programs, the report states. The demand for their work is expected to grow as more people become insured under the Affordable Care Act, according to the report.
Since 2005, substance abuse counselors have been required by the state to register with, or become certified by, one of seven private organizations in the state, such as the Addiction Counselor Certification Board of California.
The system has allowed counselors to continue working despite having their certifications or registrations revoked, the report states. They were able to sign up with a different certifying organization and keep working.
"There are plenty of cracks and plenty of opportunities to slip through the cracks" said John Hill, a consultant to the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, a nonpartisan group that conducts research for policymakers.
The report notes that people with criminal histories apparently did not violate any laws or regulations by working as counselors.
The report recommended that the Legislature put the state in charge of credentialing counselors because many shortcomings of the current system "stem from the complications of seven private organizations sharing oversight with the state."
If the state does not take over credentialing, it should require the certifying organizations to perform background checks, the report recommended.
The California Assn. of Addiction Recovery Resources, one of the certifying organizations, is encouraged by the recommendations, spokesman David Peters said.
He said his organization supports background checks. But he cautioned against disqualifying applicants simply based on criminal histories that included drug use, noting that many people become counselors while in recovery from their own addictions.
"We have said, 'Police us, please, because we want the bad actors … out of the field," Peters said.