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Leading Tennessee counseling veteran calls news state law "dangerous"

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  A leading figure in Tennessee’s counseling community spoke out Wednesday about a new state law that shield’s therapists from discipline if they violate professional standards by refusing to treat patients due to strongly held personal beliefs.

Supporters of the law say it protects the rights of the counselor and is in the best interests of patients. Opponents say it is a thinly veiled attack on the LGBT community.

Dr. Susan Hammonds-White is a counseling veteran with three decades experience and degrees from Harvard and Vanderbilt. She’s also the president of the state board that regulates the work of professional therapists and counselors in Tennessee.

The state would not allow Hammonds-White to speak to WMOT as president of that board. She spoke to us instead as a private citizen and counseling professional.

Hammonds-White says she’s spoken to counselors all over Tennessee and believes better than nine out of ten are opposed to the new law. She also says she voiced her own opposition to the measure repeatedly -- prior to its passage -- during private conversations with legislators and in formal testimony on Capitol Hill.

“That is, in my opinion, discriminatory and against the basic essence of the counseling profession, which is do no harm – first do no harm – and we as counselors are trained to focus on the needs of our clients, not on our own needs.”

The new Tennessee law (HB1840/SB1556) requires counselors to  --  not simply refuse treatment  --  but refer a patient they don’t wish to treat to another therapist. Hammonds-White notes, however, that patients generally don’t share their deepest concerns until they’ve established a bond with the counselor over several visits.

“And I, the counselor, then say, ‘Oh. Well. I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that because I don’t believe that that is a good thing to be or to do or way to lead your life.’ That is appalling.”

Hammonds-White says the law introduced and passed by Tennessee’s Republican super-majority is a solution in search of a problem. She notes that counselors have always been permitted to refer a patient elsewhere if they don’t have the training or experience to assist a particular patient.

“The problem that this legislation tried to address really is not a problem, because there is referral…there are referral opportunities written into the code over and over and over again.”

Hammonds-White wouldn’t comment on how she will handle related disciplinary cases that may in the future come before the state board she presides over. She does say that she considers it “dangerous” and “problematic” when politics is inserted into a profession’s implementation of its ethical standards.

She also says that, going forward, she sees it as her role to help further educate Tennessee lawmakers on the issue.

WMOT has sought comment from the bill's sponsors, Republican Rep. Dan Howell of Georgetown, Tenn., and Republican Senator Jack Johnson of Brentwood, but they have not responded as of this writing. We also contacted State House Majority Whip Glan Casada of Franklin, but he did not make himself immediately available for comment.

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