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By Garry Cooper
The embarrassing spectacle of a national therapy organization publicly unable to resolve a bitter internal conflict cast a shadow over the annual convention of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) during its October meeting in Sacramento, California. Since last spring, three groups of protesters—MFTers for Change, Call for Change (CFC), and the New Jersey division of the organization—have been raising questions about the direction of AAMFT, claiming that the national leadership has become isolated from its members, has lost the original vision of the organization, and has failed to promote public awareness of the distinctive clinical perspective and relational skills of MFTs, while stifling dissent within the organization. They're calling for an independent audit to look closely at governance and finances and the operating culture that's been put in place by long-time Executive Director Michael Bowers, with many calling for Bowers's resignation.
Prior to the convention, the national office of AAMFT had threatened legal action against several CFC members for using the national listserv to e-mail members a letter of grievances. At the annual conference, the protesters were denied meeting space at the convention center. Further, AAMFT cancelled the town hall meeting, a natural venue for bringing up concerns about the organization. While AAMFT had promised all members a chance to speak at the business meeting, scheduled from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M., the first hour and forty-five minutes was devoted to hearing formal reports from organizational committees. During the meeting, however, because of the number of people who showed up to speak, the executive board extended the comment time until 10:30 P.M.
Protesters organized a meeting at a nearby church, where about 250 people gathered to hear a series of speakers voice their criticism of the current leadership and watch a videotape from family therapist William Doherty noting the dramatic decline in attendance at the annual conference (from 4,500 during AAMFT's heyday in the early 1990s to an estimated 1,300 this year). Doherty cited the organization's failure to encourage clinical innovation as evidence of the ineffectiveness of Bowers and the current board. But perhaps the most dramatic moment casting a spotlight on the organization's widening split came at the end of a plenary session, when the keynote speaker, psychologist Richard Schwartz, suggested that AAMFT needed to bring in an impartial mediator to handle the conflict it's been unable to address.