I am focusing this, my last column, on the events occurring within the American Psychological Association (APA) concerning the release of the Hoffman report, and its subsequent effects for all of us. I have read many posts to several list servs during the past month concerning the report, the stated feelings of many people inside and outside APA, and the various newspaper accounts and commentaries. I had been asked for my opinions about some of this because of my role 10 years ago at APA, and having been an APA member approaching 40 years. I have never been an officer of APA or on Council, and do not intend to be, but I have chaired committees and helped found the Trauma Psychology Division (Div 56) in which I was its second President. What is also relevant for this discussion is that I was in the Chair role (Chair-Elect, Chair, and Past Chair) of the Divisions for Social Justice (DSJ) from 2003 -2006 when much of the issues had surfaced and were occurring that are discussed in the Hoffman report.
At that time, DSJ came out strongly against torture in all forms, against the PENS report which laid out the position of APA, and against changing our ethics codes accordingly. We hosted symposia at the convention on these issues at the time. However, we were basically ignored. I phased out of DSJ in 2007, but some people continued to persist in fighting for these principles, and to obtain a full disclosure of what happened then. I have watched as these people have been active for years in trying to get the truth out, and hopefully have finally succeeded in getting us objective investigations and more information than we had before that has opened this up. It took 10 years but their persistence paid off, and a new Board of Directors of APA commissioned the independent Hoffman report. It bears out and confirms that things were not what they seemed 10 years ago, and many people were indeed correct about their assumptions. As a result of the release o f the report, the head of the Ethics office was terminated or forced to resign, depending upon who you talk to, and several other high ranking executives of APA have followed suit with resignations. In total, APA is in a crisis as an organization and at a crossroads as a field.
I have seen comments going back and forth on list servs about members of APA resigning because of what APA did and did not do. Having founded nonprofit organizations, helped build some APA divisions, been in charge as the chair/president of some of them as noted above, and having been in APA for so long, there are some things I have learned. One, is it takes time for large organizations to get things right sometimes even though some of us are quite impatient (I speak for myself here). Two, if you are persistent, things sometimes do work out right in the end. Three, there is no such thing as an organization that makes decisions, hides facts, covers up scandals, and basically does bad things (in our jargon, acts unethically). However, people do such things, abuse power, and sometimes these people run the organizations for some time. Blaming APA as if there is an entity that lied, broke ethical rules, covered things up, or abused power is really not productive. Holding people who do these things responsible and accountable, providing consequences to them for their actions, and following through with fair investigations with due process are keys. If some of the people involved indirectly or directly are found to be at fault and violated ethical standards, including conflicts of interest, then taking away their licenses and removing them from the power they abused is part of what leads to change. Changing an organizational structure to avoid groupthink, conflicts of interest, and adding in transparency leads to sustainable reforms.
Resigning from APA reduces the number of good people left to make sure these things do not happen again, that the infrastructure is changed, and that good people with ethical principles and not ego invested power issues are in charge who do not have conflicts of interest. That is what leads to change, whether we are talking about an organization like APA, a family where abuse occurs, a school where bullying is present, or any example where interpersonal violence and abuse of power occurs. It is long past time for change so hopefully it can begin and continue now for APA as those in the organization work together to do the above and determine how this was able to happen in the first place, so that those systems can be changed (we in family psychology know a little about systems). Changing such systems at micro and macro levels is what I have been attempting to focus on in my small ways. Right now too many people in and out of APA are reacting with anger and frustration (I can say I am also angry and frustrated). There are calls for several more people in high positions at APA to resign, and too much name calling. I have worked with all of the people named for many years. I can’t tell you why some good people got caught up in such group think that they seem to be realizing now, a decade later. I do not want knee-jerk responses to this crisis. I have learned that for true change and reform to occur, it takes a deliberate approach in a responsible manner, and not a rush to judgment. We do need to hold people accountable, and to have unbiased ethics hearings. We need to go back to our basic principle no matter whether we are talking about the issues around torture or taking for granted some of our actions when working with clients or testifying in court – Do No Harm!! It seems too many people have forgotten this. It is time to take control of our profession in general, look closely at the organizational infrastructure of APA, and move forward.
The more who join such efforts, the more likely we will succeed at all levels. Just my 5 cents (adding in inflation). I want to thank the members of the Academy for allowing me to serve as President for the past 2 years, and helping our impressive Academy Board re-organize itself and set things in motion for the future. I welcome the incoming board members, and especially our new President, Chris Tobey.
Until next time,
Bob Geffner, Ph.D., ABPP, ABN