Government agencies use ‘incompetent’ counsellors to assess recidivist drink drivers

ImageMore than half the alcohol and drug counsellors used by the Ministry of Health and the New Zealand Transport Authority are not registered as competent with their professional body.

For instance, Steven Brady, is an alcohol and drug counsellor in Christchurch, and has been authorised by the Ministry of Health to conduct alcohol and drug assessments on behalf of the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) for the last 13 years.  The NZTA requires these assessments under section 100 of the Land Transport Act which allows repeat drink drivers who have been disqualified indefinitely to regain their driver’s licence – provided the assessment shows they have their drinking problem under control. If still drinking excessively, the offender may be required to attend treatment before the counsellor will recommend their licence should be reinstated.

Risk assessment

This process goes a step further than what is normally expected of alcohol and drug agencies. As well as diagnosis and treatment, it involves an assessment of the drink driver’s potential risk of relapse; if the risk is low, this will lead to a recommendation to NZTA that the offender’s drinking problem is now ‘cured’ and therefore he should be allowed to drive again.

Assessing the risk posed by recidivist drink drivers is not easy. It takes skill and years of experience – and is akin to the parole board deciding that a prisoner no longer poses an ‘undue risk’ to the community.  Because of the added responsibility involved, only a select number of experienced AOD counsellors are authorised to conduct these assessments; and those who do them are supposed to be vetted by the Ministry of Health (on behalf of the NZTA).

The Ministry has a set of guidelines which establishes the minimum qualifications and requirements to be approved as an assessor for the NZTA. The guidelines were updated in 2007 at which time all assessors had to be registered as ‘competent practitioners’ with their professional body, the Drug & Alcohol Practitioners Association (DAPAANZ).  Registration lasts for 12 months and counsellors have to meet certain performance standards to be reconfirmed as competent each year.

Unregistered assessors

Back to Mr Brady.  It turns out that when the guidelines were updated, he never applied to be registered as a competent practitioner.  Theoretically, from that point on, he was no longer eligible to conduct these assessments.  But he continued doing so because the Ministry of Health never bothered to check whether he had been approved by DAPAANZ or had the necessary qualifications.

Steven Brady is not the only AOD counsellor doing these assessments who is not competent. In resonse to an OIA, the MOH sent me a list of all alcohol and drug counsellors who are currently authorised to do these assessments.  It contained  90 names.  More than half of those on the list are not registered with DAPAANZ as competent practitioners. (DAPAANZ has a list of all alcohol and drug counsellors who are currently registered as competent on its website.)  As a result of my inquiries, the Ministry is now reviewing the guidelines and conducting an audit of all 90 counsellors.

Millions wasted

I also wrote to the NZTA asking how long Mr Brady had been conducting these assessments and how many he had done since he began. In their reply, NZTA said he “was approved by the Ministry of Health as an alcohol and drug assessor in 2000” and that he had been paid for doing 755 assessments since 15 December 2000.

The NZTA pays alcohol and drug counsellors $726 per assessment. If Mr Brady received this for all 755 assessments he conducted, he would have received $548,130 in the last 13 years. That’s a lot of taxpayer funding for someone who does not have the necessary qualifications and is not ‘competent’.  NZTA also advised that Mr Brady was not only conducting assessments in Christchurch where he lived, he was also doing them in Auckland, Nelson, Blenheim, Greymouth, Dunedin and Invercargill.  He seems to have been travelling around the country making a full time living out of this.

Mr Brady probably did more than anyone else but if the other 50 unregistered/incompetent counsellors did 500 assessments each during this 13 years, that’s more than $18 million which has been wasted – all because the MOH failed to vet their skills and qualifications.

On the road again

This has potentially serious consequences. Drink drivers who are disqualified indefinitely are repeat high-risk offenders – the ones with the worst drinking problems and the most likely to end up killing someone.  If alcohol and drug assessments were being done by experienced and suitably qualified professionals, these offenders should re-offend at a much lower rate than those who do not need to be assessed. (Not all drink drivers are disqualified indefinitely. The vast majority are disqualified for a finite period, usually six months to a year and get their licence back at the end of the disqualification with no questions asked.) Image

In fact those who have an assessment (and treatment) re-offend at a higher rate than those who do not. Gerald Waters had a friend killed by Warren John Jenkins (right), a recidivist drink driver with 17 previous convictions. Mr Water’s research  shows that within four years, 32% of assessed/treated drink drivers re-offend while only 28% of unassessed drink drivers re-offend.

What this means is that assessments by unregistered incompetent alcohol and drug counsellors are enabling recidivist drink drivers back on the road to re-offend at a greater rate than drink drivers who receive no assessment or treatment.  By failing to audit the counsellors doing these assessments, the Ministry of Health and the NZTA have wasted millions on a process that fails to keep recidivist offenders off the road and fails to protect the public. Who’s the bloody idiot now?

9 thoughts on “Government agencies use ‘incompetent’ counsellors to assess recidivist drink drivers

  1. I cannot see how you can blame the assessor for an increase in reoffending. It could be that those who are ordered by the courts to have an assessment are more likely to reoffend to begin with and that is why they have a tougher sentence.

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    1. I am not blaming the assessor. I am blaming the Ministry of Health and the NZTA for allowing unregistered incompetent counsellors to conduct these assessments and for failing to check on their qualifications.

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      1. Yes, but you are not comparing apples with apples, when you claim that: “If alcohol and drug assessments were being done by experienced and suitably qualified professionals, these offenders should re-offend at a much lower rate than those who do not need to be assessed.”

        Roger’s response:
        Drink drivers who are assessed are being compared with drink drivers who are not assessed. They’re all drink drivers (or apples). What is being discussed is the impact of assessment (and treatment) on subsequent re-offending rates. If assessment/treatment is done well, perhaps it would turn rotten apples into carrots.

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  2. Dear Roger,

    I appreciate the value of your presence on the AoD scene, especially since meeting you in Dunedin. We need independent commentaries to help keep things honest. I hesitate therefore to criticize, but I wish you would provide more evidence for some of your conclusions.

    The fact that a counsellor fails to renew his registration with DAPAANZ does not itself mean he is incompetent. I do not know the counsellor you mention, but naming him in this fashion without more detail seems brutal. There does not seem to be any evidence in your blog actually tying him to getting drunk drivers back on the road, and your follow-up comment that you do not blame the counsellors seems to contradict the earlier piece, where you name and blame an individual.

    Secondly the the statistic quoted later in your piece – that assessed drivers re-offend more that unassessed drivers – is predictable, since the former group are likely to have more serious offense histories. That 68% of this group do not re-offend is actually a very positive statistic.

    Yours respectfully,

    Seān Manning
    Registered Psychotherapist
    Registered AoD Counsellor
    Dunedin

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    1. Sean, you assume that these AOD counsellors simply failed to renew their registration. That’s not correct. Most of them never applied to DAPAANZ in the first place – when the regulations were changed five years ago. My conclusion is that more than half of counsellors doing assessments for Land Transport are not qualified to be doing them. I can send you the list of names of 50 unregistered counsellors if you like…

      Whether these counsellors are incompetent is a moot point. But they not competent as far as DAPAANZ is concerned. ‘Not competent’ and ‘incompetent’ are two ways of saying the same thing. But this article is not about the counsellors – its about the Ministry of Health failing to do its job.

      In regard to your second point I disagree that it is predictable that assessed drivers will reoffend at a greater rate. That implies assessment and treatment is a waste of time – and/or that the assessors are incompetent.

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  3. I am not so much interested in apples and apples, as the main issue, being unskilled AOD counsellors, let loose on unsuspecting clients, who may believe they’re in competent hands.
    My concern is not only for the vulnerable motorists but also, whatever happened to the fundamental taught to all practioners from day one- “Do No Harm”

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  4. Roger is assuming quite reasonably that a competent assessor would not allow those drivers back on the road – the fact that the assesors are allowing them back pretty much proves they are incompetent!

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  5. Surely it makes sense for the Ministry of Health to enforce their own guidelines? It is important that assessors are competent, belong to an organisation with a code of ethics and are accountable for their practice. If they’re not, it makes it an uneven playing field for those who do ensure they belong to a professional body, have paid their annual subscription and diligently earned the required one hundred points.

    Would you consult any other health care practitioner that was unregistered? Thanks for bringing this to my attention Roger, as I had no idea that this was happening, why would I? I had a letter from the MOH towards the end of the year, reminding me of my annual requirement to furnish proof of my ongoing registration and updated details of my business.

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  6. Thank you Roger regardless of anyone’s view you have once again alerted us to the lack of accountability in regard to the use of our taxes. I for one think it is abhorrent that counsellors who do not meet criteria or do not have the relevant qualifications have been paid for conducting these assessments. This must be addressed.

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