In today’s world, a therapist is considered a crucial member of society given the increasing number of mental health cases. They provide counseling and therapy to people who are experiencing a wide range of mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and trauma. However, what happens when a therapist becomes aware of criminal activity that their client has been involved in? Does the therapist have an ethical duty to report it?
The question of whether a therapist has to report a crime is a complex issue that has raised many debates over the years. It is part of the ethical guidelines that therapists are required to follow. However, the responsibility of reporting a crime is not straightforward as it requires the therapist to weigh their duty of confidentiality with their moral and legal obligations.
The role of a therapist in society
A therapist plays an essential role in society because they offer a safe and supportive space for clients to discuss their feelings, thoughts, and emotions. They use a variety of techniques and strategies to help clients improve their mental health and well-being. This includes but is not limited to cognitive-behavioral therapy, art therapy, talk therapy, and play therapy.
Confidentiality – the cornerstone of therapy
One of the fundamental principles of therapy is that confidentiality is paramount. Confidentiality protects the privacy of clients and allows them to discuss sensitive or embarrassing topics in a non-judgmental environment. It creates a safe and supportive space for the client to explore their issues without fear of repercussions or consequences.
What are the legal and ethical obligations of a therapist?
Mandated reporting laws
In some countries, therapists and other healthcare professionals are considered mandated reporters, meaning they are required by law to report certain types of crimes or abuse. In the United States, for example, therapists are mandated reporters of child abuse, elder abuse, and domestic violence.
The ethical responsibilities of a therapist
Even in countries without mandated reporter laws, therapists have ethical obligations to maintain confidentiality unless doing so could cause harm to the client or society. They have to report illegal activity when they are legally or ethically obligated to do so to protect the interests of their clients, society, and themselves.
The ethical dilemma of reporting a crime
The conflict between confidentiality and safety
While confidentiality is crucial in therapy, it can clash with the responsibility of taking reasonable steps to protect the safety of the client, others, or society. Therapists weigh the risk of harm against the duty of confidentiality when deciding whether to report a crime. They are not permitted to breach confidentiality unless they have compelling reasons to do so, such as a client reporting an imminent threat to themselves or others.
The impact on the therapeutic relationship
Reporting a crime can negatively impact the therapeutic relationship between the client and therapist. Clients may feel betrayed or abandoned, leading to a breakdown in trust. Additionally, clients may become fearful of opening up or seeking help in the future because of potential consequences. Therapists have to balance their clients’ psychological well-being with the legal or ethical obligation to act on dangerous behavior.
When is a therapist mandated to report a crime?
While maintaining confidentiality is a primary ethical obligation of therapists globally, certain situations require them to report suspected criminal activity. Some of these situations include:
- When a client poses a direct threat to themselves or others
- When the therapist has information regarding the commission or attempted commission of a violent crime
- When the therapist has information or suspicion of any form of child abuse or neglect
- When the therapist has information or suspicion of elder or dependent adult abuse
- When the therapist has information or suspicion of certain types of financial or white-collar crimes
What are the consequences of not reporting a crime?
Therapists who fail to report a crime can face civil or criminal charges or disciplinary action from their licensing board. Depending on the jurisdiction, therapists can face fines, license suspension or revocation, and even incarceration. Additionally, a therapist’s failure to report a suspected crime can lead to potential civil lawsuits brought by victims or their estate
Failure to report criminal behavior also amounts to an ethical violation, which affects a therapist’s professional reputation and standing. It can lead to damage to one’s credibility, cause harm to clients, and impact the overall therapeutic community’s public trust.
The therapist’s obligation in a court of law
Subpoenas and depositions
Therapists can be called to testify in civil, criminal, or family court regarding information obtained during therapy. The information they can disclose will depend on the nature of the court case and the laws in the therapist’s jurisdiction. In some cases, therapists may be able to assert privilege and keep some or all the information confidential. In other cases, they may have to report what they know.
Providing expert testimony
Therapists may also provide expert opinion testimony in court cases involving mental health issues. This can include assessments of competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility, and fitness to parent. Therapists may be called upon based on their reputation, training, and experience to help the court understand complex psychological concepts and provide insight into a client’s mental state.
The question of whether a therapist has to report a crime is not a simple answer. The therapist has to weigh their legal and ethical obligations against their duty of confidentiality in deciding whether to report criminal behavior. Although the confidentiality of the client is vital, therapists must prioritize their clients’ well-being and societal interests while avoiding negative impacts on the therapeutic relationship.
What happens if a therapist violates confidentiality?
In some cases, if found guilty of violating confidentiality, a therapist may face legal consequences, disciplinary action from their licensing board, or risk losing their reputation and potential clients.
Can a therapist disclose confidential information when subpoenaed in court?
If a therapist is subpoenaed in court, they can disclose confidential information based on certain legal procedures to prevent any breach of confidentiality.
What is a therapist’s legal obligation to report a crime?
In some countries, therapists have mandated reporter status, meaning they are required by law to report suspected child abuse, elder abuse, and domestic violence. However, in countries without mandated reporter laws, therapists are not obligated to report suspected crime unless doing so would prevent harm to their clients, society or themselves.
- The Canadian Psychological Association’s (CPA) Code of Ethics. (2021). Retrieved August 3, 2021, from the Canadian Psychological Association website: https://cpa.ca/docs/File/Ethics/CPA_Code_2017_4th_Edition_Final_web_secured.pdf
- Wikenheiser, M. (2019). Confidentiality vs. the Duty to Warn: A Therapist’s Requirements to Report Dangerous Behavior. American Bar Association. Retrieved August 3, 2021, from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/gpsolo/publications/gp_solo/2019/march-april/confidentiality-vs-duty-warn-therapist-s-requirements-report-dang/
- Gift, T. E. (2002). Mandatory Reporting in Ontario: A Guide for Health Care Providers. Women’s College Hospital. Retrieved August 3, 2021, from https://www.womenscollegehospital.ca/assets/pdf/Mandatory_Reporting_in_Ontario-a_Guide_for_Health_Care_Providers.pdf
- ACA Code of Ethics. (2014). Retrieved August 3, 2021, from the American Counseling Association website: https://www.counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics.pdf
- NACAC. (2019). Ethical rules for counsellors. Zagreb: Croatian Psychological Chamber. Retrieved August 3, 2021, from https://nacac.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Zagreb_August_2019_revised_brod_SRB.pdf