The territory will establish a local licensing board for family and personal counseling that will assess and regulate the business of counseling in the territory, if legislation sent out of committee Wednesday is enacted into law. Another bill may change inheritance laws to let children born after a will collect by establishing paternity through DNA testing.
While introducing counseling licensing board bill, Sen. Sammuel Sanes said, "We often forget about the psychological needs of people in times of emergency." There is a strong need for more counselors in the territory and the lack of a local licensure board makes it difficult to meet the need, he added.
Several professors of counseling at the University of the Virgin Islands and other V.I. psychologists and counselors all testified to the need for a board.
Professional counselor Edward Browne said, "Virgin Islands residents must be assured that professional counseling services will be provided by qualified professionals, and that unprofessional conduct by licensed counselors will be taken seriously by an established board with proper oversight. By creating a professional counseling licensing board, different agencies within the local government including the Department of Human Services will have a partner in handling the growing mental health needs of the territory," he said.
Patricia Towal, UVI’s director of Counseling and Career Services, said by creating the local licensing board, "Virgin Islanders will have access to a larger pool of qualified mental health providers who will be able to meet needs with affordable therapy; serving the old, the young, families, students, veterans, service members, those with disabilities and all citizens who may need the support of counseling services."
"Once the board is constituted in law it will open the way for more access to mental health services through referral agencies, employee assistance programs and more practitioners in general," she said.
Summarizing what he understood the testifiers to be saying, Sen. Kurt Vialet said, "If you don’t have a board you have to have a license from another state. You can’t get your license here. You have to get licensure in the next state and that is the key element this bill is trying to … stop, correct?"
Towal and other testifiers said they agreed.
Vialet asked, "And there is similar legislation passed in all 50 states, correct? So we are one of the last to get on board."
The other measure sent out of committee Wednesday was a bill sponsored by Sen. Novelle Francis to let a child born after the making of a will to collect from the parent’s estate, by authorizing the establishment of paternity through DNA testing. That is, if a man makes a will then later has a child, but the paternity is not declared on the birth certificate or recorded in a court judgment, the child would be able to prove paternity through a DNA test and assert their existing rights.
John Merchant of the V.I. Bar Association testified the bar is in support of the change to the law. "Clearly, updates in forensic technology have led to the current reality that paternity can be determined through DNA testing. Thus inheritance rights can be preserved, even in situations where the claim of paternity has never been made explicit and public.”
“We believe that the public policy benefits associated with safeguarding the rights of putative heirs in keeping with current technology is self-evident," he said. Merchant also said the bill was "narrowly tailored," so as to not be a major change or burden to meet, saying "given that the burden would naturally fall on the after-born child to convince a court that his/her DNA test results are reliable and compelling, we see no need for further elaboration in the revision of the statute."
The change to the law would not change wills or prevent someone from disinheriting or not leaving anything to a child, Merchant said. "If someone wants to disinherit their child, they still can. That is the power of a will," he added.
The committee sent on both bills without opposition. Voting yes on both measures were Vialet, Francis, Sens. Marvin Blyden, Jean Forde, Justin Harrigan and Almando "Rocky" Liburd. Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly was present during testimony but left prior to the votes.