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Ethical vs. Legal, Walking the Tightrope
In this section, we will examine three important aspects of ethical vs. legal issues. These three aspects are ethically improper situations, legally binding situations, and walking the tightrope.
3 Important Aspects of Ethical vs. Legal Issues
Aspect #1: Ethically Improper Situations
The first aspect of ethical vs. legal issues I have the supervisee consider are ethically improper situations. "Ethically improper" refers to situations in which, legally, the therapist’s actions were not reprehensible, liable, or in the wrong. However, taken in the context of confidentiality, certain issues may be construed as unethical.
These situations include discussing confidential and privileged information about a client with another colleague in a public place. Even if the client’s name is not mentioned, the specifics of a case may be enough to identify the client.
According to Codes of Ethics, "mental health professionals should protect the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of professional services, except for compelling professional reasons." Some Ethics Codes even list certain public places which are not ethically sound for the disclosure of information. What places can you think of that would be ethically proper or improper for the confidential disclosure of information regarding a client?
Aspect #2: Legally Binding Situations
The second important aspect of ethical vs. legal are legally binding situations. In certain circumstances, and this is especially true in regards to minors, healthcare professionals may be legally obligated to break the boundaries of confidentiality in order to be in keeping with the law. If not done so, you or your supervisee may be subject to legal action and retribution.
As you are aware, in most cases, the breaking of confidentiality occurs in cases of a client’s sexual or physical abuse or client’s threats to harm themselves or another person. Very often, in cases with minors, the parents may need to become involved for the benefit of the client. The younger the client, the less he or she can be allowed to self-determine the disclosure of his or her information.
The following is a case study that gives an example of when breaking confidentiality may be necessary in order to benefit the client.
Jill, age 15, had been sent to Carol, her school counselor, for outbursts of rage and aggression towards teachers and other students. At first, Jill was unwilling to disclose any information to Carol, but eventually, Jill began to talk about her home life. It came out that her mother, Francine, is rarely at home to care for Jill. When Francine is not home, she is out at the bars where she constantly meets new men and brings them home. When her mother’s current boyfriends raped Jill, she began to stay out of the house whenever her mom brought home a new man.
Jill stated, "That whore let it happen! She doesn’t give a damn about anyone but herself, and she can rot in hell!" Because Jill had been raped, Carol reported the incident to child protective services. The man was arrested, convicted, and sentenced. Also, because her mother was convicted of neglect, Jill was moved into her aunt’s house.
Jill stated, "I’m glad I’m with my aunt, I guess. She’s not my mom, but she’s better, you know? I wish my mom could work her shit out first, which she’s trying to do, but I’m glad she can do it without me now." The point of this breaking-the-boundary-of-confidentiality case study is sometimes, it benefits the client’s well-being to break confidentiality and report circumstances to legal authorities. Think of your Jill. Would breaking confidentiality and alerting authorities benefit or hurt the client-counselor relationship?
Aspect #3: Walking the Tightrope
In addition to ethically improper and legally binding, the third aspect of ethical vs. legal I have the supervisee consider is walking the tightrope. By this I mean, in some cases, the correct course of action may not be clear, and the consequences may not always be positive. "Walking the Tightrope" refers to that time period during which you are uncertain about the right move to make and you haven’t completely committed yourself to anything. At some point, however, a choice must be made and the fall off of the tightrope is inevitable.
Carly, age 14, told Julie, her social worker, that her father, Paul, had been molesting her. Carly, embarrassed by the circumstances and led to believe that the abuse was her fault, expressly asked Julie not to tell anyone about the abuse. However, Julie explained she was legally bound to report incidences of abuse.
However, the judge ruled that Carly would have to give her testimony in court in front of her father and the rest of the family, who believed she was lying. Faced with this pressure, Carly recanted and the charges were dropped. In addition to this, the relationship between Carly and Julie deteriorated. Carly was angry that Julie had betrayed her trust and became belligerent and angry in their sessions together. Eventually, Carly was referred to another caseworker.
Question for Supervisee: How do you think you would have handled this situation if you were in Julie’s place?
In this section, we discussed three important aspects of ethical boundaries related to ethics versus the law. These three important aspects are ethically improper situations, legally binding situations, and walking the tightrope.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Brown, T. J. (2021). Ethics, burnout, and reported life and job attitudes among board-certified behavior analysts. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice, 21(4), 364–375.
Edwards-Stewart, A., Alexander, C., Armstrong, C. M., Hoyt, T., & O'Donohue, W. (2019). Mobile applications for client use: Ethical and legal considerations. Psychological Services, 16(2), 281–285.
Lustgarten, S. D., & Elhai, J. D. (2018). Technology use in mental health practice and research: Legal and ethical risks. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(2), Article e12234.
What are three aspects regarding ethical boundaries related to ethics versus the law? To select and enter your answer go to .