AAMFT and Hawaii Division Tug of War

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 John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Janis


    August 24th, 2011 at 4:17 AM

    what a mess this seems to be

  • kelly p

    kelly p

    August 24th, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    well sometimes a big organization grows too powerful and its operations are no more transparent. this is one such story and the fight of HAMFT against AAMFT sounds like one between David and Goliath…and we all know how the fight ended :)

  • Growler


    August 24th, 2011 at 1:32 PM

    Who cares? Why is this “tug of war” being reported here?

  • James E.

    James E.

    August 24th, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    The new Hawaii organization is doing well under new leadership now that Swigart is gone. Swigart represents the old one, which was disowned because of him. He no longer has members except his wife and him. Their only goal is to disparage the national organization and spread hate.

  • Sophia


    August 25th, 2011 at 2:19 PM

    I care, and others probably do too. It sounds like this large corporation representing the healing of relationships may be deceiving its members and the public while behind the scenes it is abusing its power, covering up its actions, and using its member resources to pay for attorneys, settlements, and false advertising.

    I did some research on the web and found a link to the broader truth of this situation, which includes 75 original documents, and tells a story even more compelling and powerful than this article:


    If you examine the source website, CFC-Today.org then you will find hundreds of other examples of the abuse of power, intentional misrepresentation, and cover-ups.

    Even if we are not directly involved with this organization, it is important to be aware, and to take what steps we can to insure that we are not ourselves contributing to such abuses of power.

    Please consider the words of one of our German authors, written in 1927:

    “When many little people, in many little locations, take many little steps, they can change the world!” Barbara Rütting quotes (German Actress, Activist and Politician, b.1927)

    “Wenn viele kleine Menschen, an vielen kleinen Orten viele kleine Schritte tun, dann ändert sich die Welt!” [Barbara Rütting]

  • Carla


    August 27th, 2011 at 2:13 PM

    Here is a $20,000 question. Who is behind the cfc-today website you think proves Swigart’s claims? Well, that would be Mr. Swigart, of course!

  • J.T.T.


    August 27th, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    The headline is wrong. AAMFT did not lose anything. Swigart lost his membership, and now he is working overtime to attack the organization. He is clearly disturbed and could use some good therapy!

  • Jim Thomas

    Jim Thomas

    August 28th, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    Is this a therapist, J.T.T., suggesting that Mr. Swigert needs therapy? Rather offensive remark either way, and unprofessional if it is a therapist. He “lost” his membership, do you have evidence that he was expelled from the AAMFT upon recommendation of the Ethics or Judicial Committee? It’s important to stick to what we know, yes? The Hawaii Association website has a detailed article outlining events from that board’s perspective…is it possible there is more than one side and something to all of what the articl above says?

  • Heather McKechnie

    Heather McKechnie

    August 28th, 2011 at 2:42 PM

    Personal attacks help no one so before suggesting anyone needs therapy, I suggest you consider Sophia’s suggestion and check out CFC-Today.org.

    It would be wise for others to do the same. There are many others who have taken the time to write their stories on the cfc-today.org website. Are they all spreading hate and in need of therapy?

    As a gently reminder to those who wrote such caustic comments about the former president Dr. Kai Swigart, please note that Kai Swigart did not write this column not did he title it.

    If you know anything about GoodTherapy.org or any other media organization, research goes in to every article before it is titled, printed or posted.

    Those who have taken the time to review the documents on the .CFC-Today.org website,know what the truth is.

    Attacking personalities is neither professional nor ethical. Please take a moment before clicking the submit button if you do not have the facts.

  • T.M.M.


    August 28th, 2011 at 7:46 PM

    The winners are the MFTs in Hawaii. They now have a choice to belong to a national organization and send dues to support the activities those in Virginia establish and champion. OR to be a member of an independent organization in Hawaii, much like California has OR to be a member of both organizations. Of course you could choose “none of the above”.

    I am a member of the independent HAMFT for many reasons. Sadly many people are spouting off here with no actual facts. I know for a fact that there are more than 3 members of HAMFT.

    AAMFT is quick to tell members who question their actions to “move on” and find something that fits with their needs better. HAMFT now offers an organization to move on to. That is positive for the profession and those in the profession who want a professional organization to belong to.

    Personal attacks are what people do who have nothing of substance to say. It is sad to see that happen in this venue on a subject that deals with healing relationships.

  • Kai Swigart

    Kai Swigart

    August 29th, 2011 at 5:21 PM

    It is exciting to realize that this article has gained international attention, that people feel empowered to speak so freely, and that GoodTherapy.org is encouraging of such open, uncensored dialogue. It is also wonderful to hear the voices of colleagues who share a similar passion for truth, accountability, and ethical responsibility. I must say that I was surprised and a little hurt by the unfounded comments made above, and yet simultaneously thankful that these comment writers have the freedom to speak. I would hope that those within a profession as sacred and powerful as ours would take the time to mindfully reflect upon matters such as ethical responsibility, fact, and truth before making statements which could harm another, influence an outcome, or damage a reputation. Dissenting views and controversy often generate creative solutions, hopeful inspiration, and needed evolution — if they are handled with dignity, respect, and honor. Since I believe the greatest value from such a process is a greater awareness of truth, I will close with some of my favorite truth quotes:
    “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” – Albert Einstein
    “There is no god higher than truth.” – Mahatma Gandhi
    “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha”

  • Bill Doherty

    Bill Doherty

    August 31st, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    I have been part of the call for reform in AAMFT and have been struck by the “shoot the messenger” responses from AAMFT leadership and now in some posts following Good Therapy’s article. I’d just like to add that the article in Good Therapy was written by that organization and quoted several Hawaii MFTs. This issue is bigger than Kai Swigert and any other individual. I’d also like to note the vitriolic response of AAMFT leaders when the Psychotherapy Networker published an article detailing the controversy within AAMFT right now. There has to be room for dissent without attacks on motives or mental health.

  • maria seddio

    maria seddio

    September 15th, 2011 at 6:47 PM

    As prior president of the New Jersey Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Jan. 2009 – Dec. 2010), I encourage readers to research with vigor the facts behind the development of HAMFT as an independent entity. I agree with Bill Doherty – it is easy to disparage the messenger, especially when the truth of the message is so difficult to digest. In 2009, NJAMFT Board of Directors appealed directly to division leaders, program directors, division members and primarily the AAMFT Board to (1) ask for the resignation of the Executive Director and to (2) call for a review of the Strategic Planning process with an eye to developing a more inclusive, participatory design for change. The response was immediate and threatening, culminating in the withholding of division disbursements and the threat of de-chartering for the division. For what? Advocating for our members? Holding leadership accountable? Imagining a robust, innovative and pro-active alternative? The question isn’t why did HAMFT declare independence from the central organization, but rather – why aren’t other divisions following suit?

  • Edith Cheney

    Edith Cheney

    September 18th, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    This article warms my heart. Who was the singer with the Message: “LET THE POWER OF LOVE OVERCOME THE LOVE OF POWER.”? I see truth with love and love with truth that CFC calls us to happening because of this article. What positive power is going on here! I’ve been grateful to the leadership of my NJMFT Assoc’t for their transparency in sharing problems and asking for dialogue with AAMFT over these past few years.

    Like others, I’ve been at a loss as to why communication seems to have been blocked. Though the more facts are exposed, the less mystified I am re what appears to be AAMFT’s avoidance of open dialogue.

    NJ leadership and others who added their voices have paid the price of the prophet (as did our NJMFT Assoc’t – as Maria Seddio so clearly shared above) for their courage to speak truth to power. Leaders from other AAMFT state divisions followed suit and CFC was born.

    Dr. Kai and HAMFT, in my view, are a model of the functional dynamics needed to bring about the healing and change we were called and challenged to bring to families and to the world by our creative pioneers in family therapy.

    Here I want to express my gratitude to Dr. Kai, Maria, and all of you who are pioneering the renewal of AAMFT. Certainly, what HAMFT is doing is modeling – and in its own way mentoring – us forward by its example of courage, responsibility, accountability, transparency and the generosity needed to pursue this hard and creative work.

  • Jim Thomas

    Jim Thomas

    September 19th, 2011 at 6:37 AM

    Efforts to generate change continue, I just received an e-mail from the Call for Change forwarded to me by a colleague. It is only from this group did I learn that the Elections Council recently recommended to the AAMFT Board of Directors that the Executive Director NOT be in Elections Council meetings. Other membership organizations in our field do not have their ED’s involved in deliberations such as these. The EC of AAMFT selects the board nominees. Those people once elected by the membership oversee the ED. Why does AAMFT need the ED in these meetings? I brought this up when serving on the Board in 2002-03, and was told that he needed to be there to protect AAMFT from liability. Stunning then, stunning now, that we cannot trust elected EC members to operate within the law and board charge. But then this all has a history worth investigating rather than dismissing those who want a more transparent, more accountable AAMFT.

    Kai Swigert communicates openly and is willing to stand up for what is right. Wonder which division AAMFT is after now for speaking up and having a different opinion about our future than the central office?

  • JoyQuick


    September 21st, 2011 at 12:06 AM

    We are hearing from several members of AAMFT who live in Hawaii that they are unclear about what happened to cause the recent de-chartering of HAMFT from the national organization. Many have said they were disillusioned about the plethora of emails sent by the HAMFT President and consequently did not follow his description of what occurred. Here is another view….read more hiamft.org

  • Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem

    Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem

    September 23rd, 2011 at 2:50 PM

    It is only now from reading your words Jim that I know the Elections Council recently recommended to the AAMFT Board of Directors that the Executive Director NOT be in Elections Council meetings.

    After all the personal stories of bullying behaviour by the Executive Director and first hand experience of it, I am pleased to know some brave members have taken action.

  • Jill Mitchell

    Jill Mitchell

    October 18th, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    As past president of Idaho and being involved with the Call for Change, I can offer my own experiences to standing up to the hierarchy and the several attempts to silence the Idaho board during my presidency. The Idaho division proposed that there be an external 360 degree audit.

    Having healthy relationships is still a hope of mine for the organization of AAMFT. I am happy to see the Hawaii division going strong despite being expelled due to voicing opposing views. There needs to be room for for openness to evolve and grow.

  • Jim Thomas

    Jim Thomas

    October 25th, 2011 at 1:55 PM

    Marilyn and Jill,

    Marilyn it is my understanding that the Board of Directors denied the EC’s recommendation to remove the ED from Elections Council meetings.

    Jill, I believe, you can confirm, that the Idaho Proposal for a 360 degree audit was approved by the Council of Division Presidents of AAMFT, and made to the AAMFT Board of Directors in 2010. Furthermore, that the Board of Directors has never responded to the proposal from the CDP initiated by IDAMFT.


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