DUBAI// Hundreds of social-care professionals are believed to be operating without a licence after a deadline to register with the government passed in July.
A resolution issued last year by the Dubai Executive Council prohibited working as a social worker, therapist or special education teacher without a licence from the Community Development Authority (CDA).
The CDA estimates there are 300 people in the emirate who need a licence, but only about 45 have applied for one.
"It is no longer an issue of 'should I get licensed'," said Dr Omar Al Muthanna, chief executive of CDA's social regulatory and licensing sector. "It is now a necessity."
With the original deadline expired, officials are trying to raise awareness among professionals.
Those who come forward now can apply for a licence without penalty, Dr Al Muthanna said. The process is free.
The requirement aims to protect vulnerable residents by making sure the people they turn to for help are qualified.
"When you're in a vulnerable state - your spouse passed away, you lost your job, your home burnt - it becomes even more important that the person you seek help from is a person who has the capacity to give you that," Dr Al Muthanna said.
Established professionals in Dubai complain about unqualified people working as psychologists or therapists.
"You have some excellent professionals from around the world who have chosen to come to the UAE to work," said Dr Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist. "Then what happens is these quacks and charlatans give a bad name to everybody."
Dr Roghy McCarthy said that life coaches, or people who had taken short training programmes, have applied for jobs in her psychology clinic.
"I just don't understand how they can work," she said. "How much do they know the discipline and the ethics, and to work with clients?"
In other cases, a researcher might try to practice clinically "which is quite different", said Dr Mona Al Bahar, a social worker and member of the Federal National Council. "What we see now is people with no special degrees - they deal with people in need of such services - and they may give the wrong advice."
Licensing is also crucial for special-needs teachers, said Dr Eman Gaad, dean of the faculty of education at the British University in Dubai.
"We have so many people who are special-needs educators and they have no relevant qualifications," she said. "They have some experience, but the impact on students can be damaging."
Dr Al Bahar and Dr Gaad are on the five-person committee established to review applications for the CDA licence.
Applicants should have a university diploma in a specialisation related to their profession, according to the Executive Council resolution. They must also have a clean bill of conduct and at least one year of practical experience. Recent graduates can get a licence under a scheme that provides them with one year of supervision.
Experienced professionals who lack the right degree will not necessarily be discounted.
"We will always be looking for giving value to experience," Dr Al Muthanna said. "But that doesn't mean leniency. Don't confuse it with leniency or jeopardising quality."
The committee will work closely with Emiratis who started practising at a time when relevant education was not available here, he added.
"We are considerate of that," said Dr Al Muthanna. "We may ask them to go on an interview or be tested to gauge them."
Professionals who practise without a licence could face a Dh5,000 fine.
Officials are not penalising professionals yet because they understand that proving degrees and qualifications will take time, Dr Al Muthanna said.
The two-year renewable licence will ultimately benefit legitimate, educated professionals, Dr Al Muthanna said.
"People sometimes think of licensing as barriers and obstacles, but actually it's not," he said. "It's a tool to be distinguished and help you reach out further."
To apply for a licence, professionals can call the CDA on 800-2121 or visit their office in the Sheikh Hamdan Awards Complex. They will be able to apply online from next year, Dr Al Muthanna said.