In her campaign for Congress in Alabama, Adia McClellan Winfrey has repeatedly referred to herself as a clinical psychologist. On Twitter, in interviews, on her campaign website, on her LinkedIn page and in speeches in front of Democratic Party groups, she has spoken of her experience as a clinical psychologist (and often as a “pioneering psychologist”) and held it up as a key reason that voters in Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District should vote for her in the Democratic primary Tuesday.
But Winfrey has never been licensed as a psychologist in any state that she’s lived in, including Wisconsin, Ohio, Georgia and Alabama. In each of those states, a person representing themselves to the public as a psychologist must be licensed by a state board. If they aren’t licensed, they are violating the law.
Winfrey received a doctorate in psychology in 2008 from Wright State University in Ohio. HuffPost confirmed her doctorate through a third-party service authorized by Wright State to verify the education of its graduates.
Winfrey, who refers to herself as Dr. Dia, created a curriculum that involves something she calls hip-hop therapy. Winfrey would visit troubled youth in group homes and essentially offered group therapy along with hip-hop music to help the youth open up.
In a phone conversation, Winfrey confirmed that she has never been licensed as a psychologist in any state that she’s lived and worked in since attaining her degree.
“I’ve never been a licensed psychologist. I did complete the hours required for licensure ― but right when I was going to be studying for licensure exam, that’s when my curriculum took off.”
Winfrey said colleagues told her that the opportunity to market her curriculum was “once in a lifetime.”
After being told that by holding herself out as a psychologist violates state law in Georgia and Alabama, Winfrey said she was stunned to learn that that referring to herself as a psychologist and offering her hip-hop therapy without licensure was against the law. “I have been referring to myself as a clinical psychologist for nearly 10 years but have never told anyone that I am licensed and have never diagnosed anyone.”
In response to a question about what the difference was in her mind between what she was doing and licensed psychology, Winfrey said, “The biggest difference is how I’m paid. If I was licensed, I would be able to bill through Medicaid or through various insurance companies.”
Winfrey said she would bill organizations that wanted to offer her curriculum (including hip-hop therapy) for her standard fee and it would be up to those organizations to seek funds, whether it was through grants or some other means, to pay for her fee.
A campaign spokeswoman, when asked about the licensing, told HuffPost via text. “She earned her Doctorate of Clinical Psychology degree in 2008 and has worked with youth and trained professionals in 26 states. Her curriculum she developed is currently being used in Australia, Canada, throughout London and Botswana.”
Two experts who spoke to HuffPost said that Winfrey displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of why licensure of psychologists is important.
Heather Austin, a licensed psychologist practicing in Alabama who serves on the board of the Alabama Psychological Association (she did not speak to HuffPost on behalf of the association) said that licensure ensures that the board can monitor the activities of practicing psychologists.
“Someone who isn’t licensed doesn’t have a legal responsibility to take care of a patient in an ethical manner. If you’re not a licensed professional, you’re not operating under a board, which means that no one is ensuring that you are offering services that are appropriate. No one is ensuring that someone is offering evidence-based treatment in an ethical manner. Without licensure, the ability for the board to regulate that is minimized, it’s very difficult for the board to protect patients otherwise.”
“Someone who isn’t licensed doesn’t have a legal responsibility to take care of a patient in an ethical manner.”
The licensing process to become a board-certified psychologist, which includes a requirement for a criminal background check, can be cumbersome, but experts say it’s a critical vetting process to ensure that members of the public are receiving care from the best practitioners.
In Georgia, where Winfrey lived and offered her curriculum from 2009 to 2014, the code governing psychologists says: “A person who is not licensed under this chapter shall not practice psychology, shall not use the title “psychologist,” and shall not imply that he or she is a psychologist.”
The law in Alabama, where Winfrey is running for Congress and has lived and referred to herself as a clinical psychologist, says: “No person shall hold himself or herself out to the public as a licensed psychological technician or practice as a psychological technician unless licensed by the board. Failure to comply with this section shall constitute a Class B misdemeanor.”
If charged with a Class B misdemeanor in Alabama, the defendant could receive up to six months of jail time and be fined up to $3,000.
Even if Winfrey had not offered her curriculum or the group therapy sessions to troubled youth and merely held herself out to the public as a psychologist during her campaign (which she did repeatedly), she would be in violation of Alabama law, according to an official at the Alabama Board of Examiners in Psychology.
Winfrey is facing Mallory Hagan, a former Miss America and news anchor, in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Whoever wins that contest will run against Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who has held the seat since 2003, in November.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
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