Directive Will Affect Approximately 700,000 Professionals Licensed under AG’s Division of Consumer Affairs, in Effort to Prevent Misconduct and Support Victims
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TRENTON—Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today issued a directive cracking down on sexual misconduct by professionals licensed by the 51 boards and committees operating under the supervision of the Attorney General’s Division of Consumer Affairs (“Division”). The directive will affect approximately 700,000 licensees, including physicians, massage therapists, and counselors.
In an Administrative Executive Directive issued today, Attorney General Grewal called on the Division to work with the 51 boards and committees to adopt new policies, and improve existing processes, to help prevent sexual misconduct from occurring promote accountability among licensees, and ensure that victims who come forward to report incidents of sexual misconduct receive the support they deserve.
“Sexual misconduct is completely unacceptable in any workplace, but it is especially reprehensible when it happens behind the closed doors of doctors’ offices, massage therapy rooms, and other places where licensed professionals exploit the vulnerability of patients and clients who trust them,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “My administration is committed to setting a high standard for workforce policies and giving marginalized voices the ability to hold perpetrators accountable. The directive issued by Attorney General Grewal today furthers that effort by calling for reforms that will better prevent sexual misconduct by licensed professionals in New Jersey and better serve victims of sexual misconduct.”
“We are cracking down on sexual misconduct across this state, and that includes misconduct by licensed professionals,” said Attorney General Grewal. “As more victims of sexual assault and harassment have found the courage in recent years to report their offenders and share their stories, we have learned more about the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct by professional licensees, and we are taking action to combat it. The Directive issued today reflects my commitment to work with all of our professional boards and committees to ensure we are making full use of all available tools – including the boards’ regulatory and enforcement powers – to protect the public, hold licensees accountable for misconduct, and provide justice for victims.”
The boards and committees supported by the Division oversee hundreds of thousands of active licensees: from accountants, doctors, and acupuncturists to plumbers, massage therapists, and social workers.
The Division and many of its professional boards have for years been actively addressing the problem of sexual misconduct by licensees – both through individual enforcement actions and rulemaking.
In November 2019, for example, the Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy adopted new rules to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct in the massage therapy industry. And, in November 2020, the Division instituted a new protocol for boards’ consideration of license reinstatement requests from individuals whose authority to practice was previously discontinued. This protocol promotes transparency around reinstatement requests and helps to ensure that victims and those charged with advocating on behalf of the public have a voice in the reinstatement process.
Today’s Directive is a result of a comprehensive review announced in February 2020 to identify additional ways to improve how the professional boards and committees deal with issues relating to sexual misconduct. That review remains ongoing but has now produced a number of recommendations from the Division, which the Attorney General has incorporated into today’s Directive.
“The professional boards and committees can play a key role in preventing and responding to sexual misconduct by licensed professionals. I am grateful that so many are already proactively addressing the problem through both enforcement efforts and rulemaking. But there is always more that we can do,” said Kaitlin Caruso, Acting Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “We are pleased that Attorney General Grewal has recognized the important findings of our year-long review by incorporating our recommendations into a blueprint for how we can work together to better support victims and protect the public from sexual abuse by people who are supposed to be trusted professionals.”
Administrative Executive Directive No. 2021-3 calls on the Division to work with the professional boards and committees to initiate specific changes and adopt best practices to address the problem of sexual misconduct through prevention, accountability, and victim support. Those changes include:
Preventing Sexual Misconduct
- Improving the screening of applicants – Current application forms for initial and renewed licensure are intended to require applicants to disclose certain findings or allegations of past criminal behavior or professional discipline. To better screen applicants, the Division will work with boards to refine those questions to more clearly and specifically require disclosure of allegations or discipline related to past sexual misconduct.
- Educating professionals about sexual misconduct before they begin practicing –Training on topics related to sexual misconduct, such as bystander intervention, should be part of professional education from the outset, and it is in many professional education programs. The Division will reach out to professional schools and training programs in New Jersey to support developing further training on these topics.
- Improving post-licensure continuing education – To ensure licensees maintain an up-to-date understanding of the rules and best practices relating to sexual misconduct, the Division will work with the Board of Medical Examiners to develop a potential proposal for mandatory continuing education on sexual misconduct prevention, bystander intervention, and human trafficking prevention. That proposal will then be followed, where authorized and as appropriate, by related proposals for other boards.
Promoting Accountability for Sexual Misconduct
- Encouraging licensees’ reporting of misconduct by other licensees – Health care professionals are required to tell the Division if they have information that indicates that another health care professional has demonstrated unprofessional conduct that presents an imminent danger to the public, including sexual misconduct. To promote this kind of third-party reporting of sexual misconduct, the Division will begin offering new trainings to better educate health care professionals about this requirement.
- Strengthening enforcement for failure to report – In addition to improving training for health care professionals on their legal duty to report other licensees’ misconduct, every sexual misconduct investigation conducted by the Division should include an assessment of whether any other health care professional knew of the misconduct and failed to report it.
- Prepare recommendations for legislation to protect complainants’ privacy – Boards already take many steps to protect confidentiality, including by using only the complainant’s initials in filings in disciplinary cases. However, legislation to better protect complainants’ privacy would address one reason some victims may not report sexual misconduct to the boards. The Division will prepare recommendations for legislation to prevent disclosure of information generated by or on behalf of a victim of sexual misconduct.
Ensuring That Victims Receive the Support They Deserve
- Educating patients and consumers about how to recognize and report sexual misconduct in professional settings – The Division will offer educational resources to help individuals understand behaviors that should be expected of health care and other professionals, and recognize behaviors that may constitute sexual misconduct. These resources will also outline what individuals can do if a health care or other professional behaves in a sexually inappropriate way.
- Educating victims about the disciplinary process. Individuals who are considering filing a complaint with a professional board should have a clear understanding of the boards’ disciplinary process. The Division has prepared an overview for victims on what happens after they file a complaint, which will be made available online and to potential complainants in multiple languages.
- Expanding the use of patient/consumer navigators – Navigators can help guide victims through the investigative and disciplinary process; act as liaisons between victims and the boards; and ensure boards are attuned to the interests of victims. The Board of Medical Examiners already has a staff member performing this role. The Division will hire an additional navigator to work with other boards, as well. These navigators will be trained on best practices for supporting victims.
“Protecting the safety and welfare of the public is the primary duty of all boards and we welcome the opportunity to work with the Division to implement changes to better accomplish that mission,” said Dr. Scott E. Metzger, President of the State Board of Medical Examiners. “Ensuring that our licensees uphold the rigorous standards of the medical profession – including those prohibiting sexual misconduct in all forms – also protects the integrity of the vast majority of physicians, who would never dream of violating the sacred trust patients place in them.”
“The Federation of State Medical Boards and the nation’s state medical boards take the issue of physician sexual misconduct seriously and have worked diligently to examine ways of addressing it swiftly and effectively in the interest of patient protection,” said Humayun Chaudhry, President and CEO of the Federation of State Medical Boards. “We applaud Attorney General Grewal and his office for their commitment to protecting New Jerseyans and combatting sexual misconduct by licensed professionals.”
“The New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute has long advocated for improved education and oversight regarding professional boundaries in patient-medical practitioner interactions. Our goal is a safe environment for patients in all their interactions with medical professionals,” said Linda Schwimmer, President and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute. “We strongly support the Murphy administration’s efforts to address these issues and look to continuing to share our recommendations with the Division of Consumer Affairs in its ongoing effort to improve oversight of our state’s medical practitioners.”
“The New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault applauds these efforts to strengthen public education and offender accountability mechanisms and appreciates the strong leadership of the Department of Community Affairs and the Office of the Attorney General,” said Patricia Teffenhart, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “These reforms are being suggested in direct response to survivors’ voices and we look forward to continuing to work with our partners across systems as we move into the implementation and assessment phases this process.”
The actions announced today are only the latest taken by the Department of Law & Public Safety (“L&PS”) during Attorney General Grewal’s tenure to better combat sexual misconduct in a variety of settings. Recent actions within other L&PS Divisions include:
- Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. The Division on Civil Rights (“DCR”) holds employers, landlords, and others accountable for sexual harassment. In 2019, DCR collaborated with NJCASA to host statewide public meetings on sexual harassment. In February 2020, a comprehensive report was published based on those meetings, with findings and recommendations for preventing and eliminating sexual harassment in New Jersey.
- Protecting casino employees from sexual harassment. The Division of Gaming Enforcement (“DGE”) adopted new rules designed to protect persons within the New Jersey casino industry from harassment and discrimination, with a particular focus on preventing sexual harassment. These rules position New Jersey as a national leader in this area. In coordination with a statewide review conducted by DCR, DGE proposed rules that require casino licensees to, among other things, develop a “Plan Prohibiting Harassment or Discrimination” to strengthen protections for prospective and current employees and which are subject to review by DGE.
- Prosecuting clergy abuse. In September 2018, following allegations of widespread abuse and cover-ups in Pennsylvania, the Attorney General announced the creation of a task force to investigate criminal allegations of clergy abuse in New Jersey. In 2019, calls to the Clergy Abuse Task Force Hotline created by the Attorney General resulted in criminal charges against two Roman Catholic priests for sexually abusing children in separate incidents in the 1990s.
- Protecting kids from online predators. The Office of the Attorney General has launched multiple collaborative investigations and sting operations targeting adults who were using the Internet and social media to attempt to lure children online for sex. For example, “Operation Screen Capture” was an investigation launched in response to a dramatic increase in reports of potential threats to children from online predators during the COVID pandemic. Twenty-one people were charged with sexually exploiting children online.
- Combatting campus sexual harassment and assault. When the U.S. Department of Education issued rules to weaken protections for students who have been sexually harassed or assaulted, the Attorney General led a coalition of attorneys general opposing the federal rollbacks.
- Supporting victims of criminal sexual assault. In October 2018, Governor Murphy asked the Attorney General’s Office to study whether the state could take additional steps to support victims of sexual assault. The following month, Attorney General Grewal issued AG Directive 2018-5, which created new requirements and enhanced oversight for sexual assault investigations and prosecutions. In addition, Attorney General Grewal issued the Attorney General Standards for Providing Services to Victims of Sexual Assault, Third Edition, which established 14 protocols that prioritize the needs and concerns of victims. These steps marked the culmination of a multi-year process to improve the handling of sexual assault cases—a collaborative effort that involved prosecutors, healthcare professionals, services providers, and victim advocates.