Attorney Amanda I. ForbesBy Amanda I. Forbes, J.D., and George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified in Health Law

In today’s stress-filed world if you are a mental health counselor or other professional counselor, it is likely that you will encounter a client seeking to obtain an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)
designation letter from you. Providing such a letter may cause you to face complaints, licensing, and disciplinary actions driven by hostile landlords, homeowners associations, and business establishments that do not want any sort of animals on their premises. Often cases wind up in civil litigation. The client may also try to retaliate against you, should the client be the victim of legal problems because of attempting to keep an ESA and not understanding the legal ramifications.

However, you, as an experienced, licensed mental health professional must know what to do and not to do to protect your license and your career.

This is part 1 of 2 in a blog series regarding Emotional Support Animals. Stay tuned for part two. We also intend to do a follow-up blog series on working animals and how they are legally distinguished from ESAs.

Here are some tips to keep in mind should you decide to provide an ESA recommendation letter:

1. You must develop and document a properly established therapist-client relationship with the client prior to writing a recommendation–do whatever you would normally do for any other client seeking your help who walks in the door.

2. Confirm the actual, true identity of the client to be sure you know with whom you are dealing. Request and obtain at least two different forms of photo ID, one including a driver’s license for the equivalent. Check and verify the name and address on the Internet or with directory assistance. (I have a personal rule of thumb: “If you can’t find a person on the Internet, then he is a fake and does not exist”).

3. Obtain the client’s complete mental health history and medical history, requesting and obtaining other treater’s records just as you would do for any other client/patient.

4. If the client has been referred to you by another provider, especially one in a different medical or health specialty, request a written referral documenting the need for the referral to you.

5. Adequately and thoroughly make and document any decision that an ESA will benefit the client and help in treating any mental health symptoms. Be thorough and document it.

6. Assign a code from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, ed. 5 (DSM-5 ), to the patient, or obtain one from the patient’s regular treating psychiatrist, psychologist, or mental health therapist.

7. The most important element involved is to show that there is an actual medical necessity for the client to have an ESA or that there will be a therapeutic benefit for the client to have the ESA. If you cannot justify and document this, then do not approve the request.

8. Evaluate the ESA, preferably by an in-person meeting or tele-health conference, and determine that it will benefit the client, be sure to document this evaluation and comment on the weight, height, aggressiveness, and character of the ESA. It is most helpful to have a form the ESA’s veterinarian will complete, sign, and return to you for confirmation of this information and, perhaps, an indication that the animal is suitable in character. Keep this in your record.

9. Thoroughly document the above in your chart on the client.

10. Have a thorough knowledge of your state’s laws and professional licensing board’s regulations concerning ESAs. You might review past disciplinary cases in which counselors have received discipline relating to ESAs in your state.

Warning About Organizations that Target Mental Health Counselors, Psychoanalysts, and Professional Counselors Who Approve Emotional Support Animals.

Those mental health counselors, social workers, professional counselors, and therapists who are involved in the certification or approval of emotional support animals and working animals should be advised that there are a number of organizations and individuals out there who seek out and target those who certify or approve such animals. These organizations and individuals see many cases of abuse and improper certifications being used. They see individuals who appear to have no real medical need for such an animal “purchasing” such certifications. They view them as a merely “privileged” individual who merely buys such certification for their pet just so that can take the pet everywhere and garner attention for themselves.

Sometimes these organizations and individuals even pretend to be a patient seeking certification of an emotional support animal or a working animal. They do often contact counselors using fake names and pretending to be fake patients to see how far the therapist will go without even having a real patient. Then they file a complaint with the therapist’s professional board in an attempt to have disciplinary action taken against their license.

Therefore, it is imperative that you follow the tips mentioned in this article.

Guidance from the American Counseling Association:

The American Counseling Association (ACA) published a position paper titled: Emotional Support Animals-Human Animal Interactions in Counseling Interest Network Position Statement.

In that position paper the ACA stated:

As Licensed Professional Counselors, the assessment of DSM-5 diagnoses for human clients is within the scope of practice; however, the added practices of animal behavior, behavior assessment or Human-Animal Interventions are (most often) not. Emotional Support Animal may, in some specific circumstances, provide benefits to humans to minimize identified symptoms often associated with a DSM 5 diagnoses; however, because of the potential risks and unanticipated outcomes, the HAIC strongly suggests that counselors abstain from writing letters for persons seeking counseling or assessments for the sole purpose of obtaining an ESA recommendation letter.

Click here to read the ACA letter in full.

However, if the counselor already has an existing treating relationship with a client and the counselor is considering writing an ESA recommendation letter, then the ASA recommends:

[T]he counselor must have a thorough knowledge of the local, state, and federal laws and policies surrounding ESAs and appropriate knowledge, skills, and attitudes with the subject of therapeutic human-animal interactions before writing such a letter.

Click here to learn more.

The ACA also cautions:

The ACA’s Code of Ethics C.2.e Consultations on Ethical Obligations includes “taking reasonable steps with other counselors, the ACA Ethics and Professional Standards Department, or related professionals when they have questions regarding their ethical obligations or professional practice.” This may include working with animal trainers, behaviorists, or veterinary behaviorists to ensure that the clinician remains within their scope of practice. Since there is no overarching licensing or accrediting body for this matter, nor are there federal or state mandates at this time, the onus is on the clinician to ensure ethical practice.

https://www.unh.edu/sites/default/files/departments/student_accessibility_services_/aca.final_version_esa14556_002.pdf. (Emphasis added).

Don’t forget to read part 2 in this blog series to learn more.

Contact Health Law Attorneys Experienced Investigations of Mental Health Counselors, Psychologists, Social Workers, and Family Therapists.

The attorneys of The Health Law Firm provide legal representation to mental health counselors, psychologists, social workers, and family therapists in Department of Health (DOH) investigations, FBI investigations and other types of investigations of health professionals and providers. To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 or (850) 439-1001 and visit our website at www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.

In cases in which the health care professional has professional liability insurance or general liability insurance which provides coverage for such matters, we will seek to obtain coverage by your insurance company and will attempt to have your legal fees and expenses covered by your insurance company. If allowed, we will agree to take an assignment of your insurance policy proceeds in order to be able to submit our bills directly to your insurance company.

We also defend health professionals and health facilities in general litigation matters and business litigation matters.

To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 or (850) 439-1001 or Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620, and visit our website at www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.

GEORGE F. INDEST III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M.About the Authors: Amanda I. Forbes, practices health law with The Health Law Firm in its Altamonte Springs, Florida, office. George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified in Health Law by The Florida Bar and is licensed in Louisiana, Florida, and the District of Columbia. He is President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave. Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toll Free: (888) 331-6620.

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