Counseling Today, Ethics Update

Romantic/sexual relationships

David Kaplan January 15, 2006

Editor’s note: American Counseling Association members received the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics bundled with the December 2005 issue of Counseling Today. Completed over a three-year period, this revision of the ethical code is the first in a decade and includes major updates in areas such as confidentiality, dual relationships, the use of technology in counseling, selecting interventions, record keeping, end-of-life issues and cultural sensitivity.

All ACA members are required to abide by the ACA Code of Ethics, and 22 state licensing boards use it as the basis for adjudicating complaints of ethical violations. As a service to members, Counseling Today is publishing a monthly column focused on new or updated aspects of the ACA Code of Ethics (the ethics code is also available online at www.counseling.org/ethics). ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan conducted the following interview with ACA Ethical Code Revision Task Force Chair Michael Kocet.

David Kaplan: Today we are going to be talking about changes around sexual or romantic relationships specifically as they relate to Standard A.5. in the new 2005 ACA Code of Ethics. To start off, my understanding from the new code is that sexual or romantic interactions between a counselor and a current client continue to be prohibited.

Michael Kocet: That is correct.

DK: However, some things that do change include increasing the number of intervening years that must pass in order to have a romantic/sexual relationship with a former client and a new prohibition on romantic/sexual relationships with the family members and romantic partners of clients.

MK: Correct.

DK: So let’s start at the beginning. Sexual or romantic interactions with clients continue to be prohibited?

MK: Absolutely. The 2005 ACA Code of Ethics continues to recognize the harm that can be impacted upon clients when they are sexually intimate with their counselor. The counseling relationship is one based on trust, so we must respect the power differential inherent in any counseling relationship regardless of the counselor’s theoretical orientation or perspective. Engaging in any type of sexual or intimate relationship with a current client is abuse of power. Clients come into counseling emotionally and psychologically vulnerable and in need of assistance, so a counselor trying to engage in such relationships would be trying to take advantage of that client and their vulnerabilities to meet their own needs. Relational/cultural theory frames this as striving for a “power with” instead of a “power over” relationship.

DK: So the reason that the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics continues to give no leeway and to ban all sexual or romantic interactions with clients is because we know that harm always occurs when that happens?

MK: Yes. Even if it appears on the surface that a client is open to a sexual/romantic relationship, there are always things that happen, and the client could later turn around and say that he or she wasn’t able to make a decision that was in their best interest at the time and therefore felt coerced.

DK: That relates to malpractice suits and the one exception that liability companies such as the ACA Insurance Trust make about sexual contact with a client. All liability insurance policies that I have seen provide a lawyer and defend a counselor if he or she is accused of sexual contact with a client. However, if the counselor is found guilty, the insurance company will not pay any monetary damages that are awarded and will also expect to be reimbursed by the counselor for all legal fees incurred in their defense. The fact that sexual contact is the only exclusion contained in a malpractice policy indicates how harmful sexual contact is to a client.

MK: This is an important piece for counselors to understand and it is important to plan healthy alternative ways to meet their emotional and romantic needs.

DK: As mentioned earlier, the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics increases the prohibition on sexual and romantic interactions with former clients. The old 1995 code stated that counselors were to avoid sexual intimacies with former clients within two years of termination. The revised 2005 code expands the time frame to five years. Why did the Ethical Code Revision Task Force decide to increase this prohibition to five years?

MK: While some may see the exact number of years delineated as arbitrary, the reason a ban on sexual/romantic relationships with former clients was increased to five years was that we wanted there to be a little more time for the counselor to be reflective and to give more time for closure of the counseling relationship. It is really important that enough time has passed for the power differential to be resolved. It is also important to recognize that counselors can decide to make the personal choice to never engage in romantic or sexual relationships with former clients even though the ACA Code of Ethics allows one to do so after a five-year waiting period.

DK: For the first time in its history, the ACA Code of Ethics (in Standard A.5.b.) now explicitly prohibits sexual or romantic relationships with the family members or romantic partners of clients. It will be interesting to hear how that came up in the revision discussions and what the thinking was behind that.

MK: The task force prohibited sexual or intimate relationships with family members because counselors engaging in such relationships with client’s relatives can have a harmful impact on clients. For example, if a counselor were to have an intimate or sexual relationship with a sibling or a former partner of a client, that could have a potential risk of emotionally harming the client. The main goal of counseling should be to focus on the best interests and welfare of the client. Counselors cannot know each and every relationship or relative of clients, but counselors should not knowingly engage in such relationships.

DK: Let me give you a scenario. Suppose a counselor is engaged to be married and finds out from looking at the wedding invitations that one of her long-term clients is a very close cousin of her fiancé. Does that mean that the counselor needs to call off her engagement?

MK: I talked to Rocco Cottone, Harriet Glosoff and Judy Miranti, three members of the Ethical Code Revision Task Force, about this scenario. We agreed that it is critical to determine how clients define what “family member” means to them. In a cultural context, “family” can be nonblood relationships such as godparents or neighbors. It is not culturally appropriate to make assumptions about a client’s worldview of who is and who is not a family member.

The key to this scenario is intention. In the case mentioned, neither the client nor the counselor was aware of this situation, and therefore the counselor would not break off her engagement or wedding plans. Rather, the counselor should discuss with the client the change in relationship between the counselor and client (to be cousin and cousin-in-law so to speak). The client may decide to maintain the counselor-client relationship, but the counselor is obligated to explore the potential risks and benefits to the change in relationship (i.e., seeing each other at family gatherings). Since informed consent is an ongoing process, there would be a need to readdress confidentiality if the client decides to stay with the counselor. All of these considerations seem to be part of demonstrating sound professional judgment.

Next month: An update on dual relationships

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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