Utah Psychologist Licensing Board approves first step in ending conversion therapy on minors

(Kristin Murphy, KSL, File)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Conversion therapy on minors, which has been a controversial subject and debated in Utah, could soon be banned through a route other than legislature.

Conversion therapy, banned in 16 states and Washington D.C., includes interventions — such as hypnosis or physical distress — to change a child's sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Utah Psychologist Licensing Board didn’t use the term “conversion therapy” but did approve a new rule that states “engaging in or attempting to engage in the practice of sexual orientation change efforts or gender identity efforts with a client who is less than 18 years old” would be classified as “unprofessional conduct,” during a meeting Thursday.

The unprofessional conduct is defined by Utah’s Occupational and Professional Conduct, Jennifer Bolton, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Commerce, explained Friday. Anyone accused of committing unprofessional conduct would face a hearing before sanctions, if any, could be handed down.

“We’re an administrative agency, so if a psychologist or another mental health-licensed professional were to conduct themselves (in a way) that is deemed unprofessional conduct, (the Utah Division of Occupational & Professional Licensing) would investigate, they would bring their recommendations to the board of wherever the licensee is licensed through and then they would decide on the disciplinary action,” Bolton said.

“Disciplinary actions on the administrative level can be a warning letter, it can be a suspension, it can be a revocation, it can be probation. There are many components that could be pursued. At the extreme end, if it arises to a criminal charge, we would refer the case to our law enforcement partners to pursue.”

No decision was made Thursday about the practice for those above 18, but that could be addressed in the future, Bolton added.

The decision comes less than a month after Gov. Gary Herbert proposed that the board regulate how psychologists treat minor children for sexual orientation or gender identity issues. His remarks came after a bill that would have banned the practice on minors fizzled during the 2019 Legislative session.

When the bill was originally introduced in February, officials from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said they would not oppose the bill.

“We appreciated the willingness of the sponsors to work with us to make sure counseling in alignment with the church’s standards, such as abstinence before marriage, does not come under the definition of conversion therapy,” Marty Stephens, director of government relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the Deseret News at the time.

Thursday’s decision by the board is just the first step in the process. There’s still a process the rule change must go through before it’s officially added to the Utah Office of Administrative Rules, Bolton said.

Now that it has passed the board, it will go through a public comment period much like any change to the rules. The board will submit the bill to three other mental health professional boards for their opinions over the next few weeks. There will also be a public hearing with the Utah Office of Administrative Rules.

The hearing date has not yet been scheduled, but once it is, there will be a 30-day comment period from that date for the public to submit their comments, she added.

“Once we have the date for this public hearing on this proposed rule, we’ll disseminate that on our website and to the media,” Bolton said. Hearing information, once the date is decided, will be placed here.

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