Counselor disciplinary records kept secret by Iowa board

The Iowa Board of Certification oversees the practice of 1,400 substance abuse counselors in the state, but virtually all of its work is kept confidential. (Photo via U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

The Iowa Board of Certification oversees the practice of 1,400 substance abuse counselors in the state, but virtually all of its work is kept confidential.

Unlike state-run licensing boards that oversee social workers, EMTs, nurses and doctors, the Iowa Board of Certification is a privately run, nonprofit corporation funded entirely by fees charged for training and certification.

So, unlike those other boards, when the Iowa Board of Certification revokes a license or takes some other form of disciplinary action, the matter is treated as confidential.

The board will not disclose who it has disciplined, why it has disciplined anyone, or even give out precise statistical data on complaints or sanctions.

“We want to be a little more protective of our people and, you know, keep things confidential as we need to,” said Debbie Gilbert, executive director of the board.

Asked how often the board suspends or revokes a certificate, Gilbert said, “I couldn’t really tell you. I don’t know.”

She said the board fields roughly eight to 10 complaints per year.

Gilbert noted that if someone has the name of certified substance abuse counselor, they can look up the person on the board’s web site and see whether a sanction has ever been imposed and, if so, when. But they can’t find out what led to the discipline, she said.

“That’s on the advisement of our attorney,” Gilbert said. “We don’t get into specifics about what (rule) was violated or what the sanction was.”

Gilbert said the board won’t even disclose the names of the 1,400 individuals it has certified as meeting Iowa’s standards for substance abuse counselors.

“We’re not going to give out names, that wouldn’t be right,” she said. “We tell everybody we’re not going to do that.”

In Iowa, the oversight of substance abuse counseling is split between the Iowa Department of Public Health and the privately run Board of Certification.

The board oversees individuals who have become a substance abuse counselor simply by becoming certified with Gilbert’s organization.

IDPH’s licensing boards regulate the agencies that employ those individuals, as well as individuals whose state license in social work, mental health, or family and marriage counseling allow them to offer substance abuse counseling.

“That’s kind of a weird disconnect, right?” said DeAnn Decker, chief of IDPH’s Bureau of Substance Abuse. “The board really sits out there, kind of like an island, on it’s own, and it has been like that for many, many years.”

Although IDPH oversees the agencies that employ Iowa’s board-certified counselors, it doesn’t have access to the board’s confidential list of certified counselors or its lists of individuals who have been disciplined or been the subject of complaints.

As a result, IDPH can’t cross-reference that data with its own list of licensed professionals and substance abuse agencies to ensure disciplinary action is taken at the state level when it’s warranted.

It also means the state’s own Bureau of Substance Abuse doesn’t know who is legally offering substance abuse counseling in Iowa through board certification rather than state licensure.

“We don’t have access to that kind of information so we would get the same answer you would when asking for it,” Decker said.

Gilbert says there are a number of state-licensed social workers and counselors who have also chosen to become certified by the board simply to show that they have some expertise that’s specific to substance abuse. Because of that overlap, Gilbert and Decker said, the board and the state bureau occasionally share information on specific disciplinary cases.

In 2013, the Iowa Legislature approved a bill that would have made substance counseling a licensed profession overseen entirely by the state. Gov. Terry Branstad vetoed the measure, saying he didn’t think the step was necessary.

“The Iowa Board of Certification has been doing a good job of providing standards and certification,” Branstad wrote in his veto message. “There is no need for an additional layer of government regulation and licensure.”

The Iowa Board of Certification is funded with about $240,000 in annual revenue from fees tied to certification, testing and training, and Gilbert is paid $65,000 per year, according to IRS records. It is run out of the same Ankeny building as a faith-based counseling service owned by Gilbert’s husband, Donald Gilbert.

On New Life’s website, the company specifically lists “substance abuse” as one of the addictions the staff treats. It also lists Debbie Gilbert as the company’s bookkeeper.

Debbie Gilbert says that’s not entirely accurate. She said she’s not the bookkeeper for New Life, but does “some work” for the company. She also said none of the counselors who work for her husband’s company are certified or overseen by the board.

“They don’t do substance abuse counseling,” Debbie Gilbert says. “They’re more focused on individual, family and marriage therapy.”

On its website, New Life says it is “guided by our faith-based principles and values, which are essential to our treatment philosophy and ministry.”