June 19, 2020
By Mark Flatten

Nineteen wildland firefighters were dead, burned alive when the flames washed over them near Yarnell in central Arizona.

Carol Gandolfo was there for the survivors in the wake of the 2013 blaze, the deadliest in the state’s history. Gandolfo was a volunteer member of the Northern Arizona Critical Incident Stress Management team. She’d been trained for this sort of work, and was a member of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, an organization that teaches ordinary people to help first responders cope with the emotional stress that comes after disasters or other traumatic incidents.

It was in that role that Gandolfo found herself face-to-face with the firefighters still grieving the deaths of their comrades.

There is so much more that Gandolfo might have done. By the time of the fire, she had spent more than a decade as a licensed psychologist in California. But she was prohibited by law from putting those skills to use because she was not licensed to practicing psychology in Arizona. So despite her training and expertise, Gandolfo was confined to acting as a facilitator to get people talking rather than a qualified professional who could help them deal with their emotional pain.

She was good at that sort of thing. In her now 20 years as a psychologist in California, she’s always taken on the toughest cases. People who are suicidal. The chronically mentally ill. Jail inmates. Those with developmental disabilities who need psychological care.

Since moving to Arizona in December 2007, Gandolfo has maintained her California psychologist’s license, and has a consulting business in that state. Though she couldn’t take on patients in Arizona because she lacked an in-state license, she did put her expertise to work by volunteering with the Sedona police and fire departments, and as a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children in Yavapai County.

All of that counted against her when she applied for an Arizona psychologist’s license under the state’s new universal recognition law shortly after it took effect in August of 2019.

The new law basically says that a person licensed for at least a year in another state without any disciplinary action automatically qualifies for an equivalent license in Arizona. There are minimal provisions for background checks and limited tests on Arizona-specific statutes. But other than that, regulatory boards are not supposed to throw up additional barriers or second-guess the licensing authorities in other states. The bill creating the law was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in April 2019. More than 1,180 people have obtained their professional licenses under the new law.

The state Board of Psychologist Examiners rejected Gandolfo’s application for an in-state license last November. She’d lived too long in Arizona to qualify, they concluded, even though there is no such restriction in the statute. They also did not like the college she graduated from more than two decades ago.

And all of that California experience and volunteer work? The board concluded that warranted investigation to determine if she broke the law by practicing psychology in Arizona without a license.

“It hurt more than anything,” Gandolfo said of the board’s rejection, which was put on hold after the Goldwater Institute intervened. “All I want to do is help people. When you see something going on and you know you can come up with a solution, but you are not allowed to help because you are not licensed to do that, it’s frustrating. Why can’t I just be allowed to do what I’m good at?”

The board eventually backed down and granted Gandolfo her license in May. It did not end its investigation into whether she had been practicing psychology without a license prior to obtaining her license.

EXPERIENCE, ETHICS AND EXPERTISE

No one, not even skeptical psychology board members, questioned Gandolfo’s experience, competence, ethics, or expertise. She was first licensed as a psychologist in California in August 2000, having graduated with her doctorate in psychology from Ryokan College. At the time, Gandolfo was already licensed as a marriage and family counselor, a similar but separate occupation in the mental health field.

Ryokan was a California college accredited for licensure in that state. But it did not have regional accreditation, meaning it would not be accepted for licensure in other states. Gandolfo had no trouble getting her California license. In fact, she passed the standardized national tests required in all states the first time, a rarity back then, and was later recruited to the committee that drafted questions for future California exams.

Since then, Gandolfo has specialized in the kinds of cases that many other psychologists shy away from. She’s assessed the mental competency of people accused of crimes, and has frequently testified as an expert witness in California courts. She’s worked in two California state mental hospitals, private clinics, and homeless shelters. Over the years of taking on difficult cases, she developed expertise in treating mental health patients with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.

She also co-owned her own successful psychology practice in California.

“I know what I’m doing,” she said. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I was the person that could go in somewhere, assess the situation, come up with a solution, and make it work. That’s what I loved.”

By 2005, Gandolfo’s husband was nearing retirement age, and they were planning to move to Sedona in Arizona’s red rock country southwest of Flagstaff. Having been licensed both as a psychologist and mental health counselor in California, she did not anticipate any trouble getting her license as a psychologist in Arizona.

But the state Board of Psychologist Examiners rejected her application in 2005. Despite her experience and continual additional training since being licensed in California, the Arizona board concluded that since Ryokan was not a regionally accredited college recognized by the Arizona board, she did not qualify for a license.

Gandolfo said she was miffed, but decided not to fight the rejection at the time. Her California practice was still strong, and she was able to treat patients in that state so long as she kept her California license current.

“It hurt that it got denied, but it was like ‘I don’t have time to go fight this in Arizona,” she said. “It bothered me. It basically hurt because I know what a good psychologist I am. But I gave up. I just kept volunteering and doing what I could to help people.”

RESPONDING TO FIRST RESPONDERS

Gandolfo volunteered at the Sedona Fire Department, where she eventually served on the northern Arizona critical incident stress management team, the role that put her face to face with the firefighters after the Yarnell Hill fire. That led to other volunteer work with the Sedona Police Department, where she trained officers on dealing with victims of sex trafficking, and as a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children removed from their homes by the state.

Because she lacked an Arizona license, Gandolfo could not provide psychological services in any of her volunteer roles, even though she remained a licensed psychologist in California. People kept telling her there was a shortage of trained psychologists willing to work with first responders in northern Arizona, and encouraged her to get her license so she could do more. But burned by the experience in 2005 over the college she graduated from, she did not pursue it again.

Then in January 2019 she attended a symposium on human trafficking put on by the governor’s office. Someone there who was aware of her frustration with the licensing board told her to listen to Gov. Doug Ducey’s state-of-the-state speech that January. In it, Ducey touted a plan for universal licensing recognition being pushed by the Goldwater Institute. The idea was that a person who had proven their competency in another state was qualified to practice in Arizona.

Gandolfo wrote a letter to the governor’s office supporting the legislation. When it passed in April 2019, she was invited to attend Ducey’s bill-signing ceremony.

The law went into effect August 27. Gandolfo gathered all of the paperwork she would need and submitted her application, figuring that since she clearly met the requirements in the statute she would have no trouble qualifying.

She was wrong.

At the board meeting on November 1, 2019, several of the board members, made up primarily of practicing psychologists, voted 5-1 to reject Gandolfo’s application for an Arizona license. She’d lived too long in Arizona to qualify under the universal recognition law, they concluded, even though there is no limit on time of residency in the legislation. The issue of where Gandolfo went to college in 1998 was also raised and cited as part of the reason for the rejection.

Several board members balked at the notion that the legislature could dictate what standards a psychologist should have to meet. That’s the board’s job, they said.

If applicants didn’t like it, they could sue, said then-Chairman Bob Bohanske, himself a psychologist.

“I am just shocked at this,” Bohanske said during the meeting. “One of the ways to bring attention to this is to deny (the application) and let’s go to court. Let’s clarify this.”

The board did give Gandolfo an option to withdraw her application, which she ignored.

FIGHTING BACK

Gandolfo said she was ready to give up, again, but was persuaded to fight back by people she’d worked with in Sedona and Yavapai County, who convinced her that others who were needed to provide psychological services in the area would suffer the same fate despite the new law.

She contacted a lawyer and the governor’s office. In December, Gov. Ducey sent a sharply worded letter to the board, accusing it of violating the law. Particularly galling to Ducey was Bohanske’s comment that those who didn’t like it could go to court.

“This gamesmanship by some Board members falls far below the standard expected of Board members,” Ducey wrote.

“Universal recognition represents a landmark policy change,” he continued. “The most substantial change under the law is the fact that Arizona now accepts licenses from all other states regardless of variances in licensing requirements in those states, even if out-of-state requirements are substantially different than Arizona’s standards. It’s not the job of this Board to second guess the requirements adopted for psychologists or behavior analysts in other states. Additionally, the statute is clear that there are no time minimums or maximums for state residency for applicants to be eligible for licensure under universal recognition.

“I will remind you of the oath everyone serving on a regulatory board takes, to serve as a neutral administrator of the law as written, without preference for any policy direction. The law is clear and your responsibility is to carry it out.”

The Goldwater Institute, which helped develop the universal recognition bill and worked with Ducey to get it passed in the legislature, learned of Gandolfo’s case after the governor sent the board a letter chastising it for noncompliance with the universal recognition bill. 

RESIDENCY RESISTANCE

Board members were not much humbled when Gandolfo’s application came up again at a February board meeting. By then, Jonathan Riches, director of national litigation at Goldwater, had negotiated an agreement with board staff to essentially put Gandolfo’s denial on hold until the legislature determined the fate of a new bill that clarified the requirements for universal licensing. One provision specifies there is no limit on how long a person lived in Arizona to qualify for licensure; the law applies to both new residents and residents who have been here for a longer period of time. Another provision says an applicant who meets the education and training qualifications of another state satisfies the qualifications in Arizona, regardless of whether they are different. That was the whole purpose of the universal recognition bill, despite the psychology board’s interpretation to the contrary. 

That bill was pending when the Legislature suspended its session because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

At the February 28 hearing to ratify the hold on Gandolfo’s denial, Bohanske did back down a bit from his assertion that people who didn’t like the board’s interpretation were free to go to court. He said the board was just relying on the advice it received from the state Attorney General’s Office.

No other board has publicly raised the same residency issue.

Katie Conner, spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which provides legal advice to the state’s regulatory entities, said she could not discuss legal advice given to individual boards. She did say that advice will vary based on individual cases.

“We disagree with the general claim that our advice is inconsistent,” Conner said. “Generally speaking, every application, across multiple boards, is going to be individually evaluated with determinations made on the unique circumstances presented by a candidate.”

Bohanske did not stop with the legal issues though. While he said he supports the concept of standardizing requirements and improving mobility between states, he made clear he believes the universal recognition law is flawed, even with the fixes pending in the legislature.

“Arizona has now said that the standards to become a psychologist in this state are now equivalent to the lowest common denominator in the jurisdictions across the country,” Bohanske said.

The board ended up voting in favor of the motion to put Gandolfo’s denial on hold until the fate of the bill to clarify the law is determined. Her application remained in limbo until May 8. By then the board had drawn the rebuke from the governor’s office, and the bill to clarify the residency and education requirements had unanimously passed the Senate. However, when the legislative session was suspended in March because of the COVID-19 epidemic, the bill had not received a hearing in the House.

Despite the failure to pass the bill, board members acknowledged the legislature’s intent was clear, and approved Gandolfo’s license.

LIFE IN LIMBO

The board did not resolve a separate issue that arose between the November and February board meetings. When she filed her application for a license, Gandolfo had listed on her resume her volunteer work on the northern Arizona critical response team, as well as the Sedona police and fire departments.

That, coupled with her having a consulting business in California while living in Arizona, triggered an inquiry in late November as to whether she was practicing psychology without a license. The board voted to proceed with that investigation at its February meeting, and did not address that investigation in May.

Riches, the Goldwater lawyer representing Gandolfo, said there is no evidence she has ever practiced psychology without a license in Arizona or anywhere else. Because she is licensed in California, she is allowed to maintain her business there, regardless of where she lives. Gandolfo’s volunteer work has nothing to do with the practice of psychology, something even some concerned board members acknowledged.

Since the February hearing, Gandolfo said her professional life has been in limbo. She continued her volunteer work with first responders and other organizations in Yavapai County, always careful, she says, to avoid anything that would constitute psychological services.

Gandolfo did get her license as a mental health counselor from the Board of Behavioral Health Examiners, which did not raise any concerns about her longevity in Arizona and issued the license in January, less than a month after she applied under the new law. That allowed her to provide some counseling. But now, with her psychology license approved, she will be able to provide more extensive services such as doing psychological assessments and writing treatment plans that will make her more effective in both her career and volunteer work.

“That’s something that’s needed,” she said. “When you get somebody that can actually give a good assessment and provide a treatment plan, that’s a real need.”

As to the fight with the psychology board, Gandolfo said it was stressful, but that she would not back down because she knows there is a need for someone with her expertise in the community. Particularly galling to her was the suggestion from some board members that she’d acted unethically by volunteering her expertise, and that she was not qualified because they didn’t like the school she attended two decades ago.

“This is not about your power trip,” she said of hostile board members. “This is about doing what’s right for the people out there.”

Editor’s Note: The Goldwater Institute would normally contact board members directly for comment. However, since the Institute is representing Carol Gandolfo in front of the psychology board, this story relies only on statements made at public hearings when quoting board members.

Click here to read more of the story in 1,000+ Arizonans Get Freedom to Work under State’s New Universal Recognition Law.

Mark Flatten is the National Investigative Journalist at the Goldwater Institute.

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