By David Joel Miller.
More about when the therapist breaks confidentiality Reader Question #1
Most of the time Therapist, counselors and psychologists do not report past crimes. If the crime may occur in the future, then we have a problem. How does the treating professional balance the duty to protect the public with the need to maintain a trusting relationship with the client?
In past posts, I talked about some of the standard exceptions to confidentiality. Things like child abuse or an intent to harm themselves or others. If the client tells me about a plan, to harm or otherwise abuse a child, or kill their partner and them themselves, I feel both ethically and legally bound to intervene and try to stop this. How I go about intervening may be a matter of my best “clinical judgment.”
But this planning a crime issue, that is tricky.
One thing every professional should do is have a place they can go to for legal and ethical advice. This is one of the reasons I am a member of both CALPCC (California Associations for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors) and CAMFT (California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.) Professional associations often offer services to answer or refer you to answers for ethical and legal questions. CAMFT has lawyers on staff who can answer these kinds of questions if you are a member.
So a counselor who is presented with this situation may well consult with a legal or ethical adviser. While doing this consultation they would use the minimum amount of information needed to get an answer. They should not give the clients name or identifying info but only the nature of the crime the client says they might commit and then ask if they legally or ethically need to make any kind of report.
I mentioned also that it matters who is paying this counselor. If you go to a government psychologist and are planning on cheating disability by lying about your symptoms, that professional is working for the government and will report your effort as fraud. The point of the interview is to see if you are disabled. Even if your treating clinician does not disclose something you said they will not lie by leaving out things that would affect the decision someone else is making.
So what kinds of crimes can I think of that might need to be reported?
If my client was thinking of burning down a building or planting a bomb, I might need to report that and warn people near that building because of the high risk that someone would be hurt. If they were planning to set a fire and they shoot first responders, I feel that this is absolutely reportable.
We do encourage clients to talk with us about anything and everything so we can help them and I would want to try to help my client find other ways to accomplish their goals without committing a crime.
Generally, financial type crimes, writing bad checks or cheating on your taxes, we don’t have to report clients for that. But we do want to work with them on why that lifestyle may lead to worse things. What a counselor should not do is help the client plan ways to get away with a crime.
One last exception to confidentiality no one ever seems to talk about is if the client is a terrorist. If they are plotting a terrorist attack, even if no person is likely to be harmed, the treating professional may be required to divulge that information. Homeland security can require treating professionals to disclose certain things.
But honestly this is not a big problem for counselors; suicide bombers probably do not see therapists. Around here we aren’t likely to hear about any Homeland security related issues. There are not many terrorist attacks on cattle feedlots or vegetable growers.
Yes, I live in California, but remember that a large part of this state is a long way from the ocean.
Not sure that really answered the question, but I know that the worry about how much to tell and how much you need to hold back from your counselor is on a lot of clients mind. If you can’t trust your therapist it is hard for them to be able to help you.
When in doubt ask the person you are seeing and judge by their answer if they will try to help you while staying inside the law and ethical guidelines.
This has been a general discussion of legal and ethical issues involved in a client and counselor discussing the client’s plan to commit a crime. Remember I am a counselor, not a lawyer and legal issues vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For your specific situation, you may need to talk to a lawyer.
- How does my therapist know that? Isn’t counseling confidential? (counselorssoapbox.com)