My name is Chaz Stevens, Founder of ESADoggy.
At ESAD, our goal is a better life for everyone affected by mental illness. We help achieve that goal by overseeing a premier multidisciplinary network of licensed mental health professionals that spans two countries and all 50 states. All therapeutic members of our team are highly trained professionals wired to help those in need, and we do this is by issuing emotional support animal letters of recommendation.
According to HUD’s Fair Housing Act, an emotional support animal letter of recommendation is based on an individual’s “disability and disability-related need” for an assistance animal.
- An emotional support animal, or assistance animal, is not trained to provide specific services, but provides a supportive/therapeutic effect (i.e. provides structure, physical activity, emotional regulation, etc.).
- Covered by housing laws and policies (FHA).
- Allowed at a person’s residence without a pet fee because they are not considered a pet but a requirement for the person’s emotional health and well-being.
- Not guaranteed access to school/work/etc.
- Can be any animal, even a 6-month-old puppy.
- No certification needed.
Seems simple enough, right?
But here’s where it gets wonky.
Nearly all online ESA vendors engage therapists who review self-reported answers gleaned from a cheesy online mental health assessment. Rarely do those therapists actually engage with the client.
How else can they provide a $35 ESA letter — for which a therapist is meagerly compensated for reviewing a DSM–5 Self-Rated Level 1 Cross Cut Symptom Measure.
Instant letters? Letters with zero client interaction or drafted by out-of-state providers? Once able to fly under the radar, now they’re problematic.
When providing just an assessment, it’s ESAD’s position that our therapists cannot ethically assert a client relationship, and we firmly believe if a client needs an emotional support animal to alleviate the functional limitations associated with a psychological disability, then they would likely benefit from therapeutic counseling.
It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
However, most online sellers of ESA products don’t subscribe to our protocol.
In 2018, property owners, their lawyers, and the Federal Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD) are scrutinizing emotional support animal letters, ensuring their legitimacy; in particular, under close study is the client/therapist relationship.
Hence, the problem inherent in just offering an assessment-only solution, for the previously mentioned reasoning.
ESA letters are under much closer review
When HUD reviews ESA letters, locality (“geographically desirable”), client interaction, the total number of sessions, and upcoming sessions come together to form the basis of a therapeutic relationship.
HUD also applies a “reasonableness standard.” Is the therapeutic relationship logical? Does it make sense? For example, why would a Wichita, KS therapist be writing an ESA letter of recommendation for a Los Angeles client?
Property owners are also really interrogating their tenant’s ESA documentation, with many emotional support animal letters now being denied due to a lack of reliability, or more commonly referred to as, “was the therapist in a position to know?”
- Was the therapist local to the client?
- How many sessions have taken place?
- What’s the nature of the therapeutic relationship?
So left and right, and rightly so, tenants and potential tenants are being denied their reasonable accommodation request due to an insufficient therapeutic relationship.
What’s most troubling for me (given my 35 years of IT experience), when thinking about the online ESA business, is the rampant disregard for the protected health information safeguards mandated by federal regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. HIPAA, as it’s referred to, is United States legislation that provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information.
With unscrupulous ESA websites appearing on a daily basis, I counsel our visitors to stay vigilant, advise them of the risk inherent with providing their protected health information, and before providing such intimate detail, make sure to read the site’s HIPAA disclosure policy. That is if they even have one (and most do not).
I also advise clients to consider the possibility of having their darkest secrets sold for profit on the Dark Web.