The California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) can discipline social workers and marriage therapists for certain misdemeanor or felony convictions. In serious cases, discipline can include a career-ending license suspension or revocation.
Here are five key things to know:
- Criminal convictions that trigger disciplinary action are “substantially related” to the professional’s work (such as fraud, theft, or violent crimes).
- These same convictions can disqualify aspiring social workers from being licensed if they occurred within the last seven years.
- License applicants are permanently disqualified for any past convictions of serious felonies or Tier II or Tier III sex offenses.
- Licensed social workers have the right to an administrative hearing before the BBS can impose disciplinary sanctions.
- Social workers can have an attorney represent them at this hearing and, if necessary, at the appeal with a California Superior Court.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. Who regulates social workers and marriage therapists in California?
- 2. What criminal convictions trigger Board discipline?
- 3. Does evidence of rehabilitation help?
- 4. What is an administrative hearing?
- 5. Can I become a social worker or therapist if I have a criminal history?
- 6. How can an attorney help?
1. Who regulates social workers and marriage therapists in California?
The BBS conducts its regulatory duties to help enforce standards for safe and competent mental health practice.2
The Board is authorized to discipline licensees who get convicted of a criminal offense.3 Convictions include
- guilty pleas,
- guilty verdicts, and
- “no contest” pleas
once the judgment has been entered. So pleas as part of a deferred entry of judgment do not count.4
To help carry out its disciplinary function, the BBS requires license applicants and licensees applying for license renewal to submit fingerprint data for criminal background checks.5
2. What criminal convictions trigger Board discipline?
The Board does not initiate disciplinary proceedings for every type of criminal conviction. It will only begin investigating a social worker if:
- they are convicted of a crime and
- the conviction is “substantially related” to the qualifications, functions, or duties of social work.6
The Board evaluates every conviction on a case-by-case basis. This means it can label almost any conviction as “substantially related,” depending on the special circumstances and facts surrounding the conviction.
With that said, the BBS will usually discipline a social worker for a conviction involving theft, fraud, or violence.
Further, in the past, the Board has held that a conviction was “substantially related” to social work when it was for:
- driving under the influence (DUI),7
- brandishing a deadly weapon,8
- possession of a controlled substance and public intoxication,9
- battery and theft,10
- child abuse and molesting a child under 18,11 and
- sex with an inmate.12
If a conviction is substantially related to social work, the Disciplinary Guidelines for California social workers recommend a minimum discipline of probation and a maximum discipline of license revocation.13
The Guidelines also recommend the following actions:
- in cases of crimes against people, additional probation conditions of psychological/psychiatric evaluation and psychotherapy,
- in cases of crimes involving drugs and alcohol, terms that include biological fluid testing, and
- for fiscal and property crimes, an additional probation term involving restitution.14
3. Does evidence of rehabilitation help?
Yes. The BBS is required to consider whether a convicted social worker or therapist has been rehabilitated when ruling on an appropriate form of discipline.
Consider the following real-life example.15
Example: A woman licensed as a family therapist intern had an altercation with the police at her home in a high-crime, gang-entrenched California neighborhood.
The cops came to her home in search of her son, who was wanted on a weapons-related charge. The woman felt the police were using excessive force on her son and she attempted to stop them. She was arrested and convicted of Penal Code 148 resisting arrest and accessory after the fact.
The convicted intern had a few other alcohol-related convictions in her past, but to her credit, she was “totally candid and cooperative” with the Board and had positive reference letters.
The Board initiated disciplinary proceedings based on the convictions involving the intern’s son. But the woman decided to fight for her license, and she represented herself at a hearing before an administrative law judge.
The judge acknowledged the intern’s efforts to craft a worthy career in helping others in the face of significant adversity, limited finances, and family responsibilities. “The law looks favorably on one who has reformed,” the judge wrote in his opinion.
Instead of getting her license revoked, the intern received probation and the chance to continue her valuable counseling work.
4. What is an administrative hearing?
Before the BBS can discipline a social worker or therapist, the convicted party can request an administrative hearing.
Hearings are conducted before an administrative law judge (ALJ) and are held at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).
A hearing is similar to a California civil or criminal trial. A lawyer from the California Attorney General’s Office represents the Board. The convicted social worker either represents themself or is represented by a criminal defense attorney (at their own expense).
Both sides present evidence to the ALJ. Evidence may include:
- facts of the underlying crime that the social worker was convicted of,
- facts on a conviction’s sentence,
- the social worker’s criminal history,
- testimony from witnesses, and
- evidence regarding rehabilitation.
The Board has to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence. The judge will evaluate the evidence and issue a proposed decision to the Board, which can either accept or reject the administrative law judge’s decision.16
Note that social workers and therapists have the right to appeal the Board’s decision by filing a writ with the Superior Court.
If the Board decides to suspend or revoke a professional’s license, the party can try to petition the Board for license reinstatement.
5. Can I become a social worker or therapist if I have a criminal history?
The BBS may deny licenses to aspiring social workers if they were convicted of a crime within seven years of their license application. This is only true, though, provided the conviction was substantially related to social work and has not since been expunged or pardoned.
Further, applicants will not qualify for a license if they were convicted, at any time, for either:
- a sex offense that requires Tier II or Tier III sex offender registration, or
- a serious felony, as defined in Penal Code 1192.7.
Examples of serious felonies under PC 1192.7 include:
6. How can an attorney help?
Criminal defense attorneys play an invaluable role in helping social workers and therapists challenge disciplinary actions.
Lawyers can often try and negotiate with the Board to settle a case prior to it going to an administrative hearing.
If no settlement, attorneys can represent social workers before an ALJ. They can present evidence on the professional’s behalf and elicit testimony from applicable witnesses.
Criminal defense lawyers also know what evidence matters when it comes to showing proof of rehabilitation.
Note, too, that the BBS can only initiate an investigation in cases where there is a conviction. If a social worker is charged with a crime, they should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately after the state files the charge.
A lawyer can help the professional contest or defend against the charge so that it gets dismissed. A dismissal means that there is no conviction for the Board to act upon.
- Note that the Board also licenses educational psychologists and regulates marriage and family therapist interns, associate clinical social workers, and continuing education providers.
- BBS website, “About the Board.”
- California Business and Professions Code Section 480.
- California Business and Professions Code Section 4982.
- BBS website, “Fingerprinting.”
- California Business and Professions Code Section 480.
- In the Matter of the Accusation Against Caleb Ola Aleru (ACSW), Case No. AS 2007-299 (associate clinical social worker’s license revoked after multiple DUI’s); In the Matter of the Accusation Against Karah Ann Belczak (ACSW), Case No. AS-2005-961 (associate clinical social worker voluntarily surrenders license in connection with DUI conviction-related disciplinary proceedings). Note that in both of these cases the Board cites to BPC 4992.3c as well as 4992.3a.
- In the Matter of the Accusation Against Mable Shyh-Wen Kuo-Boyer (LCSW), Case No. LC-2006-167 (clinical social worker got 3 years of probation, including psychological evaluation and psychotherapy terms, in connection with conviction resulting from threatening someone at place of practice with a butcher knife).
- In the Matter of the Accusation Against Mike Randel Brewer (MFT), Case No. MF-2006-642 (marriage and family therapist license revoked).
- In the Matter of the Accusation Against Cherrlynn Moneaka Hubbard (ACSW), Case No. AS-2003-633 (5 years of probation).
- In the Matter of the Accusation Against Scott Matthew Pleune (ACSW), Case No. AS-2005-90 (license revoked by default decision). See also California Business and Professions Code 4996.2d.
- In the Matter of the Accusation Against Andre Gouaux (LCSW), Case No. LC-2006-383 (voluntary surrender of license).
- BBS publication, “Uniform Standards Related Guidelines to Substance Abuse and Disciplinary,” Revised December 2020.
- See same.
- In the Matter of the Accusation Against Sonia Cantu Lopez (IMF), Case No. IM-2005-474.
- California Government Code Section 11517.
- California Penal Code 1192.7 PC. Assembly Bill 2138. See also Applying for Licensure with a Conviction or Past Disciplinary Action? Here’s What you Need to Know, BBS (“There are certain circumstances where a conviction cannot be a basis for license denial, even if it occurred within the preceding seven years. They are as follows: • You have obtained a certificate of rehabilitation under Chapter 3.5 of Title 6 of Part 3 of the Penal Code; • You have been granted clemency or a pardon by a state or federal executive; • You have made a showing of rehabilitation under Business and Professions Code section 482; or • Your conviction was dismissed under Penal Code sections 1203.4, 1203.4a, 1203.41, 1203.42, or 1203.425 (or another state’s equivalent). Please be advised that even if a conviction was dismissed under Penal Code sections 1203.4, 1203.4a, 1203.41, 1203.42, or 1203.425 (or another state’s equivalent), the Board may still have to go through the process of requesting and obtaining court documents to assess and ensure that the conviction was dismissed pursuant to Penal Code sections 1203.4, 1203.4a, 1203.42 or a comparable dismissal or expungement. Applicants are not required to disclose any convictions or provide any documentation regarding any prior convictions. Applicants may voluntarily provide a certified certificate of rehabilitation or proof of dismissal with their application.”). See also SB 731 (2023).