Utah psychologists could be prohibited from conducting conversion therapy on minor-aged clients, under a draft rule approved Thursday.
The change, proposed by an advisory board to the state’s professional licensing division, comes at the urging of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
The Republican governor in June directed the state’s Psychologist Licensing Board to review and create rules regarding conversion therapy — a widely discredited practice that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity — after an effort to ban the practice through legislation stalled in March.
The new rule, if adopted, would add to the definition of unprofessional conduct to include “engaging in or attempting to engage in the practice of sexual orientation change efforts or gender identity change efforts with a client who is less than 18 years old.”
Psychologists found guilty of unprofessional conduct could lose their professional licenses or have them suspended or restricted in some way. State regulators could also put an offender on probation or issue a public reprimand, according to Utah law.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said the draft rules look “very promising” and signal the psychologist board’s commitment to protecting children from conversion therapy.
“There are no loopholes in this current draft that would protect conversion therapists, so in its current form, we’re pleased,” he said.
The new rules might obviate the need for legislation against conversion therapy, but advocates won’t know for sure until they see a final version of the rules and will be paying close attention to any draft changes, Williams said.
Herbert’s office said he and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox “are grateful to the Utah Psychologist Licensing Board for their efforts and dedication to use scientific expertise and best practices in drafting this new rule.”
The statement continued, "They feel strongly that matters of psychological intervention should be governed by science, not politics, and look forward to the rule making its way through the approval and public comment process.”
Final determination on the rule will be made by the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, or DOPL. The next step in the process is for the psychologist licensing board to review the drafted rule language with the Social Worker Licensing Board, Clinical Mental Health Counselor Board and Marriage and Family Therapist Licensing Board. Those meetings will take place in the beginning of August, DOPL spokeswoman Jennifer Bolton said.
The state will also schedule a public hearing on the proposed rule and open a 30-day comment period to accept public input, Bolton said.
The rules as written could face opposition from Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum and a critic of a conversion therapy ban bill presented earlier this year in the Utah Legislature. Ruzicka called the current draft “terrible” and said it would block children from therapeutic help.
“[The draft rules] are absolutely not acceptable,” Ruzicka said Friday. “I’ve talked to some some psychologists today about this, and they said they couldn’t practice the therapy that they’re currently doing under these rules.”
Herbert came under fire by conversion therapy opponents earlier this year after he endorsed amendments to the bill banning that practice that were made against the wishes of the bill’s sponsor. A group of protesters staged a sit-in outside the governor’s office in reaction to his endorsement of the substitute bill, ultimately prompting Herbert to issue a written apology.
During a June news conference, Herbert announced that he had directed licensing agencies to consider administrative prohibitions against conversion therapy, adding that he lacked the expertise to fully evaluate the controversial practice.
“I certainly have concerns about some of the abuse that I’ve heard talked about, but I’m not a psychologist," Herbert said. “This is not my background. I’m going to rely upon the experts to tell us what should be done, or not be done, or how it should be done.
The nation’s leading mental health and medical associations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, have rejected conversion therapy as dangerous and ineffective, and 16 states have banned certain counselors from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors.