In an audacious show of power, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) lost a lengthy tug of war with one of its fastest growing divisions, the Hawaii Division, Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (HAMFT). In business since 1974, and presided over by former Division President, Dr. Kai Swigart, the HAMFT found itself in an embroiled battle with its association after posting an alleged sexual harassment complaint against the organization on its website in November of 2010. The AAMFT insisted, since the charges had not been proven that the HAMFT remove the posting. Citing freedom of speech and full disclosure, the HAMFT, an entity whose board had already raised concerns about the corporate structure at the AAMFT, specifically, lack of an impartial Human Resources Department to address such complaints, refused.
After a 23 year long relationship, the AAMFT decided, without communication to or from the HAMFT, to issue an ultimatum. The HAMFT was instructed to remove the complaint or lose its membership dues and charter. The Hawaii Division again refused, in part due to the fact that it believed the AAMFT was operating above the law. Swigart said, “After more than a decade of dictatorial leadership, resulting in various abuses of power and cover-ups, one of its state divisions, the Hawaii Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, stood up against this national powerhouse due to its questionably punitive handling of a matter which resulted in an EEOC Complaint and Settlement.”
Shortly after, three other divisions, Idaho, New Jersey and Minnesota, joined together with Hawaii as the United Divisions, and rallied in support of reform in the AAMFT. In January of 2011, they wrote:
“This e-mail is being written in relation to the position the AAMFT Board has recently taken against the Hawaii Division, and in support of a Division being able to stand up for what they believe is right without fear of retaliation. Even if we do not agree with all decisions the Hawaii Board has made, we do support their right to speak their truth and stand up for what they believe in.”
The AAMFT did not respond. The aggressive lack of response was triggered by many negative interactions and feelings towards the AAMFT. Swigart referred to a subsequent correspondence to the AAMFT in which he wrote:
“As I am certain you have realized, HAMFT, along with numerous other Divisions, has been growing increasingly dissatisfied with AAMFT leadership. As a result, we have been participating in dialogues, drafting petitions, supporting proposals, and collaborating with sister Divisions pursuant to the development of a more transparent, accountability-based, staff-served, membership-driven AAMFT.”
Perhaps the sexual harassment posting was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. Regardless, even under the threat of losing its funding and charter, the HAMFT stood their ground. Over the course of the next five months, the HAMFT received repeated email threats and did indeed have their membership dues suspended. No one at the AAMFT contacted Swigart directly, and his multiple emails went unanswered.
“The result was that our membership dues, our only source of funding, were withheld in order to force us into compliance,” said Swigart. “When we stood strong, our charter was then suspended with the threat of charter revocation if we failed to submit to the bullying tactics. Holding on to our courage, strength, and dignity, we stood our ground. We were then de-chartered, and this national organization representing a profession based on the systemic healing of relationships, dissolved our 23 year affiliation without allowing a single meeting, phone call, or email to discuss the matter.”
The AAMFT did, however, initiate contact and made their staff extremely available in order to expedite the de-chartering of the HAMFT, all the while reminding Hawaii that they would not survive without the support of the national organization. The HAMFT, who strongly believed in healing relationships, quickly realized that they did not need the national leadership in order to carry out their mission. “On May 31, 2011 we were de-chartered, and on June 1, 2011 we arose as a fully independent, tax exempt Hawaii Domestic Nonprofit corporation, continuing on, with greater freedom and creativity, in our 37 year tradition of serving the Hawaii communities,” says Dr. Leslie Ross, HAMFT City and County of Honolulu Representative. “HAMFT can now continue carrying out its mission of service without having its hands tied by a national organization whose only interest appears to be its corporation,” says Ross.
The new HAMFT (Hawaii Association of Marriage and Family Therapists) can be found at www.HAMFT.net. The Hawaii County Representative, Makela M. Bruno-Kidani, UH Hawaiian Language Professor, had this to say about the newly formed association. “The true essence of Hawaii is within our aloha, the epitome of truth, honor and compassion. As a newly independent organization, our association can be more creative in building upon these universal values and be able to better serve the unique needs of Hawaii and Hawaii’s people. I am very humbled and proud to be a part of this pioneering effort for our island communities and beyond.”
Although the triumph was born out of challenge, as most triumphs are, Swigart is excited to put the past behind and move forward. In an email addressed to his members on the first day of the new HAMFT’s existence, he wrote “So let’ get started enjoying the benefits of autonomous professional development deriving from freedom and creativity within a culture of transparency, accountability, and aloha!”
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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