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Virginia boards look to end conversion therapy for minors

Experts say there's no evidence conversion therapy works – but plenty that it causes harm.

As early as this month, Virginia’s professional licensing boards could take the first steps toward ending the practice of conversion therapy for minors in the state.

A workgroup of representatives from five professional boards – psychology, counseling, social work, nursing and medicine – convened in October to hash out regulations that would prohibit state-licensed members of their professions from providing therapy intended to change a person’s sexual orientation.

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy or sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), is a practice – viewed by most mental health organizations as not just ineffective, but potentially harmful – that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, or at least to diminish what supporters call “unwanted same-sex attraction.” It is illegal to perform conversion therapy on minors in 14 states and the District of Columbia, and on anyone of any age in New York City.

ALSO READ | D.C. could be 2nd city in U.S. to ban conversion therapy for some adults | Maryland bans ‘gay conversion therapy’ for minors

Every major professional mental health organization in the country opposes conversion therapy; over the past two decades, all of them have released some version of a statement echoing the American Psychiatric Association, which said in 2013 that, “No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.”

The National Association of Social Workers says, “…no data demonstrate that reparative or conversion therapies are effective, and in fact they may be harmful.” The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that youth should “avoid any treatments that claim to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation.” In 2014, the American Association of Christian Counselors – a Virginia-based professional organization with an estimated 50,000 members – moved away from conversion therapy in its code of ethics, and now promotes celibacy for homosexuals instead.

In Virginia, bills have been proposed for the past several years by state Sen. Scott Surovell and Del. Patrick Hope, both Democrats, to add the Commonwealth to the list of states banning conversion therapy for minors – the latest effort being Senate Bill 245, submitted in 2018. So far, no such legislation has been able to overcome opposition by Republican members of the legislature and conservative religious groups in the state – the latter of which say they believe banning conversion therapy is an infringement upon their religious liberty.

Chris Friend, of the Family Foundation – which describes its mission as “applying a Biblical worldview and founding principles to culture and public policy” – testified at a hearing before the Virginia Senate Education & Health Committee in January 2018 that he believed the bill was overly broad and would violate parental rights enshrined in the state’s constitution. Another opponent of the bill, representing the Virginia Catholic Conference, said the organization feared outlawing conversion therapy for minors could put clergy who are also licensed therapists at risk of losing their license.

At the same meeting, a member of that committee, Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant – an obstetrician and gynecologist who earned her M.D. from Eastern Virginia Medical School – questioned the need for a legislative solution at all.

“Having served on the Board of Medicine, we have an entire board of subject-matter experts that hear these kinds of things,” Dunnavant said. “Conversion therapy is clearly not approved therapy in the clinical community now, so why are we codifying an arena of the board when we have entrusted subject-matter experts to discern those matters individually as clinical practice changes?”

Following that meeting, and the subsequent failure of Senate Bill 245, the Virginia Board of Psychology requested that the Department of Health Professions convene a workgroup of the Boards of Psychology, Counseling, Social Work, Medicine and Nursing to discuss possible regulatory language to ban conversion therapy for minors in the state.

Dr. Herb Stewart, the Board of Psychology chairman, said he believes the five boards left that workgroup generally supportive of passing their own regulations banning the practice. Stewart said he’s heard the testimony from conversion therapy supporters, but believes a regulatory ban is the right move for Virginia.

“Some of these therapists are well-meaning. Some of them are driven much more by ideology,” Stewart said. “But the bottom line is, I think that it’s sufficiently harmful and clearly ineffective, and I think it’s the role of the state to come in and say it’s not OK. You can’t do that. Whether it’s peddling bad food or peddling snake oil or providing conversion therapy. I think it’s an important role for us to take, and I hope that we can move this forward.”

A 2018 survey published by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimated that 20,000 LGBT youth ages 13-17 will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before the age of 18. Stewart said he believes there’s evidence that a portion of that population will be in Virginia.

“To the degree that we can extrapolate this survey data to Virginia, I would estimate that there are likely hundreds of adolescents who would undergo this harmful and ineffective intervention without change in regulation,” he said. “We also heard public comment at the conversion therapy work group stating that licensees were engaged in this work in Virginia."

Stewart said he anticipates the Board of Psychology, which will meet first of the five boards in 2019, will take up the issue at its quarterly meeting in January. If the board is in agreement, the members could adopt a notice of intended regulatory action (NOIRA), which would then begin a roughly 18-month process ending with the implementation of new regulation. In between, the proposed language would have to be approved by the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of health and human services and the Department of Planning & Budget. It would also go through multiple public comment sessions throughout the process.

Virginia won’t be alone in looking at banning or regulating conversion therapy in 2019. Last month, Denver’s mayor and members of its city council announced a bill that would make it the first city in Colorado to ban the practice for minors. And in Texas, a Democratic lawmaker is proposing a bill that would ban the practice for minors statewide.

In December, the D.C. Council passed a bill that would make the city the second in the nation to ban conversion therapy for some adults. That bill is awaiting action from Mayor Muriel Bowser, who supports the effort, and approval from Congress.


Jordan Fischer is an investigative reporter for WUSA9. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @JordanOnRecord. Send news tips to jfischer@wusa9.com.

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