Tag Archives: Ethics & Legal Issues

Ethics & Legal Issues

Technology Tutor: Revisiting the ethics of discussing clients online

By Rob Reinhardt November 7, 2017

If you have given even a cursory observation to the advertisements that appear on Facebook, during Google searches or on many of the websites that you visit, you will have noticed that these advertisements are targeted at you. The ads might be related to web searches you have performed, the area you live in or something that is generally popular with your age group.

This is how companies such as Facebook and Google make almost all of their money. They gather information about you (and everyone else) and sell advertising to companies that want to target you. They make a lot of money doing this because they are very good at letting those companies get very specific with their targeting. (Google reported revenues of $26 billion in the fourth quarter of 2016 alone.) For a glimpse into the kinds of details that Facebook collects about people, check out the great infographic at bit.ly/FBTargetOptions. That list keeps growing and getting more refined. It is especially important to note this passage from Facebook’s overview of how to target ads: “Behaviors are constructed from both someone’s activity on Facebook and offline activity provided by data from Facebook’s trusted third-party partners.”

In other words, to target advertising to their users, Facebook is collecting data from many different sources about both online and offline activity. So, this is not restricted only to the activity on Facebook.

What does this have to do with our clients (and potential clients)?

I continue to witness counselors engaging in referrals and case consultation in online forums such as Listservs and Facebook groups. This is despite my previous article on this topic last year in Counseling Today (see bit.ly/discussingclients) in which I discussed the difficulty of maintaining confidentiality for clients and the PIT principle (permanence, identity, transferability), and even with American Counseling Association Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan clearly stating that discussing clients online is an ethics no-no. The existence of marketing databases curated by entities such as Facebook and Google adds yet another reason that we need to consider other ways of addressing client needs.

Take this example of a completely fictional situation that could quite easily refer to a real situation:

Johnny Client contacts Susie Counselor about an appointment. He provides some background, and Susie recognizes that she is not a great fit for him. She decides to reach out to her local mailing list or Facebook group of therapists to see if she can provide Johnny with a solid referral. She writes: “Looking for referral for 30-something male dealing with depression. Needs counselor in network with ABC Insurance.”

Although this may seem innocuous at first, it is likely more than enough information for Johnny to be identified. In my previous article, I pointed out the human reasons this is an issue. (For instance, what if someone who knows Johnny or even Johnny himself is in the group? What if someone copies and pastes or screenshots the information?)

Now let’s look at it from a targeted marketing standpoint. Johnny’s call to Susie didn’t happen in a vacuum. Prior to calling her, Johnny did a search for “Counselor MyTown” and visited Susie’s website. These are traceable behaviors tied directly to Johnny, and they likely will end up in the databases used by entities such as Google and Facebook to target advertising. Based on these behaviors, Johnny is likely to start seeing ads on his computer for mental health treatments, counselors in the area and self-help books.

It is important to note that Susie Counselor is now probably connected to Johnny in these databases because he visited her website and placed a call to her. So, when she posts about the 30-something male with depression shortly after receiving Johnny’s call, it’s not a huge leap for database algorithms to figure out that this is the same Johnny Client who recently visited her website and called her — the same Johnny Client whose address, birthday and many other pieces of information already exist in the databases. Except now, thanks to Susie, those databases have learned that Johnny is dealing with depression. They may well have already known what insurance Johnny has, but if not, that’s another bonus that Susie provided for them.

What you can do

I’d like to highlight one of my suggestions from the previous article as well as provide a couple of other suggestions:

  • Make it counselor-centric: When seeking someone to refer to, focus on the counselor’s skills, not the client’s issues. For example, you might say, “I’m looking for a counselor who helps clients dealing with depression.”
  • Keep it offline: Go old school! Keep your own notebook or database of people you can refer to. Note their strengths, location, the insurance they accept, etc. Network and get to know them to elevate the quality of your referrals.
  • Raise awareness: Sometimes, counselors need to be reminded of things that we often tell our clients. For instance, just because others are engaging in a behavior doesn’t make it OK. Make others in your online forums aware of the privacy issues surrounding discussing referrals and cases online. Point them to this article and to my previous article that I referenced earlier. Point them to the pertinent passages in the ACA Code of Ethics (noted below). Even if they aren’t counselors, the ethics codes for social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists and psychiatrists contain similar passages, so their concern for client privacy and confidentiality should be just as great. Above all, be kind and compassionate in your approach.

Pertinent standards in the ACA Code of Ethics

B.1.c. Respect for Confidentiality

“Counselors protect the confidential information of prospective and current clients. Counselors disclose information only with appropriate consent or with sound legal or ethical justification.”

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Note the inclusion of “prospective” clients. Do you have the person’s consent before disclosing anything about them online? Can you accomplish your goal without disclosing information about them online? If so, what is your legal or ethical justification for disclosing?

B.2.e. Minimal Disclosure

“To the extent possible, clients are informed before confidential information is disclosed and are involved in the disclosure decision-making process. When circumstances require the disclosure of confidential information, only essential information is revealed.”

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Do clients (or prospective clients) fully understand the ramifications of you disclosing information about them online? Do they understand how few details it might take for computer algorithms to identify them? Are they aware of all the options for accomplishing the goal, and do they approve of online disclosure?

B.3.c. Confidential Settings

“Counselors discuss confidential information only in settings in which they can reasonably ensure client privacy.”

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Is there any way that this standard doesn’t completely rule out using online forums for any disclosure? Based on my experience and expertise, there simply is no way that counselors can reasonably ensure client privacy if they share any details about clients in most online forums.

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For an interesting discussion of this topic, including an interview with social media policy expert Keely Kolmes, check out Episode 104 of the TherapyTech with Rob and Roy podcast.

 

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Rob Reinhardt, a licensed professional counselor supervisor, is a private practice and business consultant who helps counselors create and maintain efficient, successful private practices. Before becoming a professional counselor, he worked as a software developer and director of information technology. Contact him at rob@tameyourpractice.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Bringing counselor expertise to court

By Jean Peterson

As a counselor educator, I could have done more to prepare counseling students for involvement with the court system. Pertinent discussions were usually limited to child custody, records, privileged communication, subpoenas and counselors’ vulnerability in the courtroom. I had experienced depositions and had written clinical summaries, but I had never appeared in court. My own preparation had included nothing about being an external expert witness.

Then I had an experience that underscored the importance of teaching and learning about court involvement. Although attorneys might not think of counselor educators and school and mental health counselors first when needing an expert witness, a counseling perspective might be crucial to an outcome. Apparently, mine was.

A bit of history

During the 1980s and early 1990s, a number of articles and monographs addressed court involvement for helping professionals. During that era, psychologists were growing in number, assessment was valued and psychological witnesses were increasingly used. In addition, media outlets were discussing “recovered memory,” and a high-profile case led to criteria for admissible expert testimony. However, conceptual literature noted that attorneys did not always appreciate the expertise and objectivity of therapists in the courtroom, and, because expertise was not standardized, lawyers and experts with stronger credentials could challenge witnesses.

Roles and behaviors related to court processes were also being clarified for counselors. I paid attention to Ted Remley Jr., a helpful legal voice in the field. I learned that both general and expert witness roles are possible, with the former providing facts and the latter providing opinions. An expert witness educates judge and jury by reviewing and interpreting facts and records, making inferences and then informing in neutral, understandable language. School and mental health counselors are more likely to be general, or fact, witnesses, although experience and special training might make them desirable as expert witnesses.

Journal articles about counselors’ involvement have been rare since then, but thanks to contributors such as Carolyn Stone, school counselors can access guidelines related to subpoenas, court orders and privileged communication, for example. However, media interest in bullying and the growing number of states with pertinent statutes suggest that courts will increasingly be involved in cases related to school safety. In such cases, a school counselor or counselor educator may be asked to serve as an expert witness, examining counselors’ and others’ roles or perhaps providing an opinion about the climate or culture of a school.

A surprising request

Eventually, I was contacted from a distance by the attorney for Wendy (pseudonym), a bright 22-year-old, in a civil case against a school district. Alleged negligence in the wake of extreme harassment had contributed to two extended traumatic experiences for Wendy.

My purpose here, in describing my experience as an expert witness, is to provoke thought about counselor court involvement, roles and behaviors, institutional cultures, ethical behavior, systemic contributors to harassment, and potential developmental impact of harassment and retaliation after reporting. Details about the process and time involved might lessen counselors’ concerns if asked to be involved.

Traumatic experiences

I was told that, during ninth grade, Wendy was assaulted physically and harassed with graphic sexual language by a school bus driver almost daily for several months. Allegedly, he had groped her when she entered and exited the bus, jerked her clothing to expose her underwear and asked about her sexual behavior. Wendy observed another student’s similar experiences.

Wendy realized that her younger sister, beginning to mature physically, soon would be vulnerable. She talked with her sister, who talked with the elementary school counselor, who contacted Wendy’s mother, who in turn contacted the school principal, superintendent and sheriff.

The second traumatic experience occurred after Wendy’s parents filed a complaint. Allegedly, the bus driver began drug- and sex-related rumors about Wendy, which were then perpetuated by students who considered the driver an ally. Their unrestricted behavior on sports-team buses (e.g., beer, pornography) matched the driver’s voyeuristic interest in their social lives. He talked with them about Wendy’s parents’ complaint, and, according to an interview during the investigation, encouraged one student to lie on his behalf. At school, Wendy, who formerly had enjoyed social ease, was harassed and marginalized. At the end of her junior year, she transferred to another school.

During the criminal case, which took place after Wendy’s transfer, the bus driver was acquitted. According to Wendy’s new attorney, who contacted me, adolescent witnesses for the prosecution had not presented themselves well in court, even in how they were dressed. Wendy would tell me later that she herself was “not prepped.” This new attorney was now preparing a civil case, focusing on the school system.

Credentials

I was initially surprised to be contacted. Then I considered my professional background. I was knowledgeable about school culture. When the attorney met with me, I told him I had been a teacher, counselor or group specialist in schools for 25 years and a counselor educator for 15, supervising school- or agency-based field experiences. I had worked closely with school administrators in several schools.

In addition, principals-in-training at the university were required to enroll in my Introduction to School Counseling course, and they interacted with the school counseling students formally and informally about their respective professional roles. As a counselor educator, I had led a national study of bullying and was acquainted with trauma literature through a 15-year qualitative study of a survivor of trauma. Beyond that were coursework and clinical experiences in family therapy. I had licenses in school and mental health counseling. Thinking about these experiences gave me confidence. Still, I had anxiety: I would be a first-time expert witness.

An educational experience

What I was asked to do fit my expertise. Training and experience in school counseling were important for my first formal opinion, whereas experience in counselor education was important for my second. The attorney initially traveled to meet with me for two hours. He described what he had learned about the bus harassment and the responses of school personnel after Wendy’s parents filed the formal complaint.

We soon communicated again by phone. I explained relevant concepts, including the developmental lens I routinely used as a counselor, examining developmental tasks (e.g., identity, direction, relationships and autonomy), “stuckness” and task accomplishment. I described findings in my study of trauma and noted literature related to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We discussed the bullying study and my study with John Littrell of a school counselor who transformed a school culture from bloody fights to harmony. In the latter, the school culture was deemed to be malleable, and a strong counselor-principal partnership was essential to the positive change. I assumed that principal and counselor roles and relationship, school culture and climate, bullying and PTSD all would be important to this case.

At that point, I formally agreed to be involved and was asked to keep track of hours. I said I would ascertain whether bullying legislation existed in that state when the alleged harassment occurred, and the attorney agreed to locate student handbooks of the school from that time. I subsequently met with a faculty member in educational administration at the university and consulted by email with a superintendent who was a former middle school principal, asking how he would respond to an anonymous scenario resembling Wendy’s. His details were helpful as the attorney and I considered what administrators did and did not do in Wendy’s case. I also received university permission to engage in the court process. This permission included a formal admonition that I be clear, both in oral and written testimony, that I did not represent the university or its perspective.

The attorney later sent me a thick loose-leaf binder containing documents and resources for me to study, including:

  • The student handbooks and the school district’s anti-harassment policies
  • Depositions from the superintendent and a teacher for the earlier trial and Wendy’s affidavit
  • Wendy’s mother’s formal complaint
  • Summaries of student statements in the sheriff’s investigation report
  • Polygraph results for Wendy and the bus driver
  • A letter regarding the bus driver’s disciplinary record and his responses to two sets of interrogatories
  • Wendy’s school attendance, academic performance and psychological evaluation records

I studied these materials in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Wendy. The attorney’s assistant arranged for my in-person interview with Wendy and clarified my focus:

1) Wendy’s experiences during the harassment

2) How experiences with the bus driver, students and staff affected her mentally, emotionally and psychologically

3) How she was treated by school counselors

4) Whether permanent damage had occurred

I then developed an interview protocol. The interview lasted 3 1/2 hours.

As I asked about Wendy’s experiences, including during the criminal case, I included questions about development. I also assessed her morale, alert to possible depression, suicidal ideation and PTSD. As directed, I asked about contact with school counselors, whether and how much administrators were aware of her distress, the responses of teachers and peers, and attendance and classroom achievement. Subsequently, I submitted a report to the attorney. Over the next three months, we conferred four times by phone as I prepared to write an affidavit.

The affidavit

Writing the actual affidavit required about seven hours. I needed to peruse the binder materials and notes from my interview with Wendy, communicate once with her by phone to verify details and develop a carefully written, facts-based document. In it, I first presented my credentials and professional employment record as well as a list of the documents I had examined. I explained that I had conducted an interview of a specific length, and I asserted that the information I had gathered from Wendy was the kind counselors rely on during assessment of concerns. Then I presented two formal “opinions.”

First opinion

The first opinion was that the district failed to exercise reasonable care to protect Wendy from a backlash of ridicule and retaliation by faculty and students that was foreseeable under the circumstances. Both action and inaction were part of this neglect. I then discussed pertinent aspects of school administration, school counseling and school culture. I first described some differences in the roles and training of principals and counselors. Pertinent to this case, a head principal sets the tone and establishes the professional culture and climate, including expectations of ethical behavior from counselors and institutional tendencies to ignore or address conflict and other systemic concerns.

I explained that a school counselor can be an oasis for troubled individuals while also staying alert to general student morale. Trained to be nonjudgmental, objective, proactive, collaborative and not a disciplinarian, the counselor is skilled in listening and responding and helping students cope with stressors and live effectively. The American Counseling Association’s 2014 code of ethics, which makes respecting the dignity and promoting the welfare of clients the counselor’s primary responsibility, guides decision-making and behavior. The American School Counselor Association’s ethical standards state clearly that school counselors’ primary obligation is to the student and that they are to inform officials about conditions that are potentially disruptive or damaging to school mission or personnel. All of these aspects were pertinent to the case against the school.

Inaction: Administrators’ inaction suggested a school culture not geared to ensuring a safe environment for learning. School became a hostile and dangerous place for Wendy. Her parents were her only adult advocates.

1) Administrators did not take Wendy’s situation seriously, even though they were aware of the sheriff’s interviews at school and an earlier complaint about the bus driver. According to a deposition, a key administrator did not read students’ statements.

2) Administrators did not suggest that Wendy see a school counselor, who could have focused on her emotional health, and did not partner with school counselors to ensure her protection after the retaliation began.

3) Administrators ignored the bullying. According to Wendy, “About 15 [students] routinely harassed me.”

4) Administrators did not direct teachers to be alert for situations needing intervention, an action that might have given teachers permission to support Wendy. She sensed distance from formerly approachable teachers. Only two teachers, over the course of two years, offered a supportive comment (e.g., “Sorry to hear about everything”).

5) The harassment was visible to teachers. On one occasion, a clique of high-profile students interrupted a class, asked for Wendy and bullied her in the hall with threats of rape.

6) An administrator did not honor Wendy’s request to see a counselor after she was accosted by the girl whom Wendy had witnessed being assaulted. The girl would not acknowledge being assaulted and denied that Wendy had been assaulted. Only Wendy was sent home.

7) Administrators and teachers never asked why Wendy was often absent in the afternoons (“because I couldn’t take it anymore”), even when they had seen her earlier in the day. One of Wendy’s parents usually came to the office while she signed out, in full view of a principal.

8) The bus driver continued to drive his school route for several weeks after the complaint.

The inaction of the counselor Wendy consulted was also pertinent. Wendy’s well-being was at issue, and an alleged sexual abuser/harasser was under investigation prior to the first trial.

1) The counselor did not intervene with the bullies/harassers (e.g., talking with them individually) and was not active on behalf of a student in crisis, especially in a complex situation that involved threats and a distressed target.

2) When Wendy wanted to talk with the counselor after being accosted (“I’d done the right thing and gone to him”), he did not advocate for her when the principal sent her home.

3) Unlike her sister’s counselor, who appropriately called Wendy’s mother, Wendy’s counselor listened during their several meetings after the retaliation began (“I was often red-faced and crying”), but did not validate feelings or speak of reporting the situation to administrators. The collaborative aspect of addressing serious problems was missing.

4) The counselor did not contact child protective services or discuss that possibility with administrators. The situation involved a school employee with responsibilities for minors (“full power,” according to the student handbook), alleged sexual harassment of a student and implied danger for other students.

Actions: The superintendent was not receptive to Wendy’s parents’ complaint and was not respectful when they initially met with him. Administrator actions suggested a toxic school culture that gave permission to school personnel to treat Wendy and the situation inappropriately.

1) After Wendy’s mother complained about the incident in which harassers/bullies asked that Wendy come into the hallway, the teacher who had deferred to them said to Wendy, “I can no longer trust you.” The implicit school-culture message was that students should not tell parents about distressing incidents.

2) Wendy’s mother learned that one junior high teacher had commented to a neighbor that “[the bus driver] always liked the young girls. … I thought it was consensual.” This indicated that at least one teacher was aware of the bus driver’s behavior and normalized it.

3) In class, a teacher compared “the bus driver thing to the McDonald’s hot-coffee case.”

Second opinion

The second opinion was that Wendy suffered long-lasting psychological injury — PTSD, depression and developmental stuckness — as a result of the school district’s failure to protect her.

Scholars have theorized that bullying inherently involves a power differential. The bully or someone with more power than the bully is responsible for stopping bullying, not the person with relatively little power. Wendy said the bus driver had “total control.” She said, “I tried to sit in back. If called to the front … I tried to laugh it off, told myself that I was just being oversensitive.”

Wendy’s behaviors make sense in that context. In addition, many adolescents do not report harassment because much is at stake, and they are not likely to know how to handle that level of embarrassment, especially in front of peers. The lack of a supportive and protective response from school administrators during the bullying had an impact on Wendy’s well-being and development.

Emotional development: Stuck in sadness, anger. With her experiences invalidated, Wendy said, “I analyzed myself to death.” Reflecting feelings of hopelessness, she said, “I feel like it’s never going to end. Why can’t I be done with this?” She was “nervous about the future,” asking, “Will I ever be able to move on?”

I concluded that her symptoms of depression did not reflect a neurological predisposition: “Other than this, nothing in my life could be called ‘unhappy’ — boyfriend, family.” All of her sad language was related to the situation with the bus driver and the consequent bullying. She felt deep anger about the situation being “pushed aside” even by people who were supportive in public. When asked to elaborate on her statement about “the system,” she referred to the school failing her and the bus driver being acquitted. She then said, “I can understand why people … seek violence instead of authority.” 

PTSD: Stuck in reactivity. Wendy described symptoms associated with PTSD in my study of trauma: hypervigilance; extreme, confusing emotions; and high reactivity to contextual reminders. She was “afraid I’ll run into the principal at a public event.” She was “terrified” when she saw the bus driver in the lobby at her worksite: “I wanted to hide in the back.” When seeing a school bus, “my hands become sweaty.”

Social development: Stuck in not trusting. Workplace relationships and friendships had been affected. In the past, she had “friends all over the place.” Now it was “hard to let people get close.”

Physical/sexual development: Uncomfortable, self-conscious. Wendy’s responses to my questions about physical and sexual development fit the literature about sexual abuse: “My body image was fine. … I wore anything, happy with myself.” Now there was doubt: “Maybe I let too much show.” She said she currently wore T-shirts and jeans with “nothing showing.” She worried, “Will they see me as provocative?” The bus driver’s comments had led to reactivity to even playful sexual comments, which affected her relationship with her boyfriend: “I’m still uncomfortable with sexuality.”

Career development: Stuck. This former honor student said her vision of her future was “absent.” When I asked where she might be now without this experience, she said, “I’d be a teacher.” About higher education, she said, flatly, “I thought about college, but I don’t know what I could do forever [as a job] to make me happy.”

Outcome and implications

After the attorney studied the affidavit, we had two conversations. Eventually, he reported that the school district had refused to settle out of court and that the defense would probably want a deposition from me. However, three months later, he sent news that the case had been resolved. The terms would remain confidential, but he added, “I do believe this case will do some good down the road for similarly situated students.” He said I could reference the case in the future, and he approved the manuscript for this article. He indicated that he had learned from me.

Wendy’s parents’ persistence and the attorney’s investment and instincts about school-system culpability were advantageous. During several years of struggle, Wendy and her parents demonstrated courage, first at school and then during two court cases. This case is a reminder to counselors and counselor educators of the potential impact of receptivity and nonreceptivity of school personnel to frustrated parents and distressed students. It also underscores the potential impact of adult and peer aggression on development.

I encouraged the attorney, when a trial was expected, to incorporate the concept of school culture, not just climate, into his argument. Cultures have norms, protocols, actual and de facto leaders, and implicit and explicit rules. Behaviors at many levels here reflected well-established constraints, permissions and toxicity. Wendy’s experiences in her new school were in stark contrast to those in the school she had left.

Counselor educators can raise awareness in their teaching that institutional cultures differ, reflect leadership and affect students’ and clients’ well-being. A school counselor’s actions and inaction can affect school culture just as any other school leader’s behavior can. Counselors elsewhere can similarly contribute to and be affected by institutional culture.

More situations such as Wendy’s are likely to generate court cases. State laws now define bullying and require school districts to address bullying behavior, giving children and their parents leverage for complaints. However, counseling professionals’ knowledge and experience, especially related to development, ethical behavior and systems, can be applied beyond bullying cases. Their expertise is potentially valuable across a wide range of cases with similar overtones.

I am now an expert witness for the second time, for another case involving bullying. Regardless of whether it goes to trial, I am reminded that counselors and counselor educators can indeed be expert witnesses. I believe that discussing such court involvement during counselor preparation can help counseling professionals be confident in that role if asked, and I hope that first-person accounts such as this one might help counselors embrace the process.

 

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Jean Peterson, professor emerita at Purdue University, focused most of her clinical work and research on the social and emotional development of gifted youth, with special interest in those not fitting common stereotypes. She received 10 national awards related to research and 12 at Purdue for teaching, research or service. Among her several books is Talk With Teens About What Matters to Them. Contact her at jeanp@purdue.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives:

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counselors in the courtroom

By Margaret Taylor May 10, 2017

Counselor educators are responsible for ensuring that students are sufficiently prepared for entry into the counseling profession. It is challenging for counselor educators to include all areas of preparation because numerous content and curriculum standards must be met. One topic that often gets neglected is preparing counselors for testifying in court. In a paper presented at the 25th International Play Therapy Conference in 2008, Marilyn Snow and Ruth Ouzts Moore found that counselors were increasingly being called on to testify in court, especially in child custody cases. But most counselors are not well prepared to serve as competent witnesses or represent the counseling profession adequately.

Inadequate knowledge about the judicial system and process regarding court testimony may place counselors at risk for ethical violations. Therefore, I believe it is crucial that counselor educators prioritize educating students about testifying in court. The first time that I testified in court as a beginning counselor, I found that I had been poorly prepared by educators and attorneys. The experience nearly traumatized me. I was not ready for the questions that were asked of me or the grueling process of cross-examination. As a result, the client’s case suffered and the counseling profession was misrepresented.

After this initial experience of testifying in court, I vowed never to be caught unprepared again. I also determined to use my negative experience to better equip counselors for testifying in court.

 

Legal and ethical responsibility

Counselor educators are expected to be knowledgeable about ethical and legal issues in the counseling profession and recent changes in the field of counseling. Standard F.7.a. of the American Counseling Association’s 2014 Code of Ethics states, “Counselor educators who are responsible for developing, implementing and supervising educational programs are skilled as teachers and practitioners. They are knowledgeable regarding the ethical, legal and regulatory aspects of the profession; are skilled in applying that knowledge; and make students and supervisees aware of their responsibilities.” This section of the ethics code applies to the fact that counselors are frequently subpoenaed to testify on behalf of their clients. Accordingly, counselor educators are ethically obligated to educate students about their ethical and legal responsibilities when testifying in court.

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) Standards (2016) also address the ethical and legal responsibilities of counselor educators in preparing their students for practice. Two CACREP Standards apply to the issue of counselors testifying in court. Standard 2.F.1.b. states that programs must include, “the multiple professional roles and functions of counselors across specialty areas,” whereas Standard 2.F.1.i. specifies that training must be provided in “ethical standards of professional counseling organizations and credentialing bodies, and applications of ethical and legal considerations in professional counseling.”

Together, the ACA Code of Ethics and the CACREP Standards would appear to require that counselor education curricula incorporate training in the roles and responsibilities that come with testifying in court and otherwise acting in the best interests of clients.

 

Competence as a counselor educator

Counselor educators are not only responsible for providing students with material on courtroom testimony and other aspects of law pertaining to their clients; counselor educators are also to be knowledgeable about the topic themselves. Counselors and counselor educators should seek guidance from counseling professionals who have served as witnesses in court.

As reported in the Counseling Today article “Your witness” in 2011, George Cyphers, a counselor educator at Kent State University and owner of a consulting business, made this statement about testifying on behalf of clients: “I have learned over the years that this is a serious business because it involves a person’s life. You cannot afford to hold yourself out as an expert unless you are willing to invest time and effort to prepare thoroughly for the challenge of cross-examination.”

Experience from practicing counselors reiterates the importance of preparing students for courtroom testimony. Time and effort should be placed into designing a curriculum that includes education about testifying in court on behalf of counseling clients. Students who are well-educated and prepared in this area are able to represent themselves, their clients and the profession effectively.

If we agree that counselor education programs need to prepare students for court testimony, the question becomes what should counselor educators include in the curriculum, and how are these competencies best attained? Various expert witnesses, attorneys and counselors have provided suggestions on what is important to know prior to entering the courtroom. Writing for the Journal of Counseling & Development in 1990, Jan La Forge and Phyllis Henderson suggested four categories: the role of the counselor in the courtroom, pre-court preparation, courtroom etiquette and strategies for answering questions.

 

Role of the counselor in the courtroom

The role of the counselor while in the courtroom is that of a witness. Forge and Henderson asserted that the counselor serves as an educator to the jury and the judge, providing factual and neutral information. It is important that counselor educators distinguish between an “expert witness” and a “witness of fact.”

To testify as expert witnesses, counselors must first be qualified as such by the judge. Demonstration of knowledge and experience may include publications, presentations and specific training in the area of expertise. The prosecuting attorney will ask counselors questions about their qualifications. Counselors answer these questions by demonstrating their knowledge and expertise. After presenting their qualifications, it is possible that the opposing attorney will call those credentials into question. Counselors should be prepared for this possibility. If they are not challenged, it is likely that the judge will qualify them as expert witnesses, meaning these counselors can offer an opinion on the case.

Valuable witnesses are typically well-educated, intellectual individuals who are able to educate a jury about their expertise as it relates to the case. Expert witnesses should be skilled at teaching a jury, using short statements rather than long uninterrupted assertions.

Conversely, “fact witnesses” provide testimony about what has been observed, heard or known as true events during the course of counseling. Michael Puhl of Puhl Law Group explained (2014) that fact witnesses do not have a particular expertise; therefore, they are not permitted to offer opinions about the facts of the case. Counselors working with children are often called to testify as fact witnesses because of disclosure statements made by children during session. As fact witnesses, counselors may repeat statements made by the child but not offer an opinion about the truthfulness of the statement.

Various resources exist for counselor educators and counseling professionals when preparing to be called as expert witnesses. The following is a list of books and articles on testifying as an expert witness:

  • “The Ten Commandments of Testifying at Trial” by David Benjamin
  • “Expert Witnesses, Courts and the Law” by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and Ananda Hall
  • “Working as an Expert — Tips for Expert Witnesses” by Aaron Larson
  • “May It Please the Court: Testifying Tips for Expert Witnesses” by Laurence Miller
  • “Courtroom Survival Guide” by Patrick J. Walsh
  • Feder’s Succeeding as an Expert Witness, fourth edition, by Harold A. Feder and Max M. Houk
  • The Portable Guide to Testifying in Court for Mental Health Professionals: An A-Z Guide to Being an Effective Witness by Barton E. Bernstein and Thomas L. Hartsell Jr.
  • Clinicians in Court: A Guide to Subpoenas, Depositions, Testifying and Everything Else You Need To Know by Allan E. Barsky and Jonathan W. Gould

This list is not exhaustive, but it serves as a good starting point for counselor educators to incorporate material into a course for counseling students. Material on courtroom testimony can be infused into different courses of a master’s counseling program for clinical mental health or school counseling. Orientation classes on the counseling profession or for clinical mental health counseling or school counseling would also be appropriate courses to include material on expert testimony. In a counselor education and supervision doctoral program, a course on contemporary issues in counseling would be a fitting place for information on counselors serving as expert witnesses.

Counselor educators can also provide opportunities during practicum classes for students to meet with counselors who serve as expert witnesses. These expert counselors could answer students’ questions and concerns. Counselor educators can also arrange for an attorney or expert witness to attend class to demonstrate various court proceedings that counselors may encounter, including depositions, cross-examination, criminal trial and custody hearings. Role-plays of legal proceedings can also serve as an excellent method for educating counselors about what to expect in the courtroom.

Likewise, educators may arrange for students to observe a court hearing or attend a mock hearing or trial. A study conducted by Carol R. Colby and Lynn Landis Long in 1994 found mock trials to be a useful teaching method for graduate counseling students who are learning about ethics and legal proceedings. Legal and counseling ideas are integrated in a mock trial, providing students experiential learning and practical application. A mock trial helps students understand the functions of all people involved in the law, including judges, attorneys, mental heal professionals, jury members and court reporters. Educators can best prepare students for possible legal proceedings by pairing knowledge from lectures with experiential learning, such as roles-plays and mock trials.

 

Pre-court preparation: Documentation

Proper documentation is one of the many important tasks in preparing for court. Outside of the court setting, counselors are ethically obligated to maintain appropriate documentation of all clients. Therefore, preparing documentation for court should not pose a challenge.

Attorneys vary in what they request in a subpoena for records. Counselors should be prepared to provide all of the client’s records. However, counselors may be asked to present only records pertaining to a certain allegation or custody matter.

Many court cases do not occur until long after a counselor has terminated with the client. Being meticulous and cautious about documentation is crucial for counselors. It is generally recommended that counselors maintain detailed documentation of any action in a client case, including meetings with parents and client disclosures. Counselors should be aware that if an activity is not documented, then there is no hard evidence that it happened. This aspect is important to keep in mind when a client misses appointments.

Moore and Laura R. Simpson suggested in a 2012 VISTAS article that when writing case notes, counselors should be careful to use definitive descriptive language. For example, rather than stating, “It appears the child was neglected by family,” a counselor should state, “The child disclosed that the family withheld food for three consecutive days.” Careful language prevents the counselor from being trapped on the stand by a statement made in documentation. An attorney cannot challenge the counselor on a statement made by a client; however, an attorney can question a counselor about an opinion given in documentation.

Once records are subpoenaed by the courts, counselors should document the subpoena in their records and then should immediately contact clients to inform them of the breach of their confidentially. Clients have the right to know when their confidentiality is broken because of legal proceedings. This phone call or meeting to inform clients of the subpoena should be documented too. Thorough documentation of the limitations to confidentiality will help prove the counselor acted ethically should a client seek legal counsel.

 

Pre-court preparation: Conference with attorney

Counselor educators should inform students of the necessity of meeting with the attorney who issued the subpoena so that both the attorney and the counselor are well-prepared for possible testimony. Forge and Henderson explain that during this conference, counselors can be informed about particular documents that will be needed and what questions will be asked of them during testimony. Counselors can also inform the attorney of any concerning issues about the case to prevent the attorney from being surprised during the hearing.

Cross-examination will occur from the opposing attorney during the course of a court hearing. Meeting with an attorney in advance can provide opportunities to cover questions and strategies that may be used during cross-examination. Knowing ahead of time that attorneys are being compensated to discredit the witness prior to a court hearing can keep counselors from panicking or answering defensively while testifying.

Counselor educators are likely to have little experience with cross-examination. Inviting guest speakers such as community attorneys and counselors with expert testimony experience to counseling classes can provide students with concrete examples of the cross-examination process.

 

Courtroom etiquette

Etiquette in the courtroom may appear commonsense, but it is a topic that is often overlooked. Appropriate dress and behavior should not be disregarded when preparing counselors for court because these are signs that will indicate the professionalism of the counselor. Suits or work attire is recommended. Also limit accessories that may cause a distraction. Dressing properly is one of the simplest ways a counselor can establish credibility in the courtroom.

Body language is equally significant. Body language can communicate strength or weakness. It should communicate that the counselor is confident, knowledgeable and strong. Jamie Hamlet asserts (practicenotes.org/vol12_no4/testifying.htm) that language can establish counselors’ credibility with the jury and deters the deference attorney from antagonizing them. Body language is an important component in training to be a counselor. Therefore, counselors should already be familiar with the significance of communicating positive body language on the stand as a witness. By displaying the proper posture of sitting straight and leaning forward, counselors will express assertiveness and professionalism. Facial expressions should demonstrate genuine concern and thoughtfulness.

Furthermore, counselors should speak clearly and politely to those in the courtroom. Counselors should declare with authority and conviction if they are confident about a conclusion made regarding their case. Conversely, it is recommended that counselors refrain from being argumentative or defensive if challenged by an opposing attorney. Being argumentative may be perceived as disrespectful and unprofessional.

Frequently, witnesses are not permitted in the courtroom until it is time to give their testimony because attorneys do not want proceedings from the hearing to contaminate witnesses. Therefore, counselors should be careful who they speak with and limit their conversations. Forge and Henderson warn that speaking with a witness on the opposite side of the case could cause a mistrial.

 

Answering questions during testimony

Responding to questions asked by attorneys during testimony can be very challenging and intimidating. But with proper preparation, this process doesn’t have to be so daunting. Counselor educators should teach counseling students various strategies related to answering questions in the courtroom.

Always tell the truth. This is the No. 1 concept to remember when testifying in court. Do not waver from this. Do not embellish your statements during testimony. Simply tell the truth and state the facts. If a question is asked that you do not know, merely state that you do not know the answer. Often witnesses think that they must have an explanation for each question asked of them and then feel pressured to speak. Counselors must understand that making an untruthful statement can ruin their credibility and harm the client’s case.

Community members who serve as jurors often place their trust in expert witnesses such as doctors, counselors, police officers, etc. Therefore, jurors will do their best to believe an expert’s testimony if credibility is established. If an expert witness betrays this trust by being dishonest or disrespectful on the stand, Laurence Miller states (in “May It Please the Court: Testifying Tips for Expert Witnesses”) that jurors are likely to disregard the witness testimony, harming the client’s case. Being honest and truthful increases the possibility that jurors will believe the testimony of the counselor.

Witnesses should take time to listen to the attorney’s questions and to formulate their responses. Simplicity is key. The more words that are spoken, the more questions that can be asked. If a yes-or-no question is asked, simply answer yes or no. Furthermore, the language that witnesses use should be simple. Laypeople will not typically understand the jargon used in the counseling field. Speak in a way that will be easily understood by someone outside of the profession.

Cross-examination is designed to be confrontational, causing one to feel pressured. Counselors should expect to be challenged on the witness stand. Learn not to take such challenges personally and to exhibit grace under pressure without becoming flustered or annoyed or losing your temper. Well-prepared counselors are ready to defend their opinions and remain firm on the conclusions made while testifying. This stance exhibits confidence, expertise and assurance to a judge and jurors.

Attorneys may attempt to fluster witnesses. This may involve asking numerous questions rapidly, speaking loudly and acting in an intimidating manner. When training to work with clients, counselors are expected to remain cool, calm and nonjudgmental during counseling sessions. These same skills should be applied during courtroom testimony. Educators should prepare counselors for this tactic and provide them with techniques to remain calm.

 

Conclusion

It has been established that counselor educators play a significant and vital role in educating and preparing counselors for testifying in court on behalf of their clients. Including material on court testimony in counselor education curricula protects both students and their future clients. Incorporating the topics discussed in this article into class syllabi and the overall curriculum is essential to preparing counselors to serve as competent witnesses and exceptional representatives of the counseling profession.

 

 

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Margaret Taylor is a licensed professional counselor and supervisor in Alabama, having served as a counselor for more than 10 years. In addition, she is enrolled as a second-year doctoral student in the Auburn University counselor education and supervision program. Margaret has advocated for children and testified as an expert witness in numerous courts, including in criminal trials, custody cases and juvenile hearings. She has presented at state and regional conferences, providing counselors with the necessary tools to serve as effective witnesses in court for clients and the counseling profession. Contact her at barnema@auburn.edu.

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

The case for including animals in counselors’ duty to report

By Troy Gregorino April 12, 2017

This past year, the American Counseling Association Governing Council endorsed formal competencies for the practice of animal-assisted therapy in counseling. The authors of the standards, and the coordinators of ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network, contend that the competencies (available at counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies) represent a key step forward in both the protection of clients and the promotion of therapy animals’ well-being. My own contention is that the adoption of these competencies additionally points to a need for ACA to endorse a “duty to protect” that applies to animals.

As a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky, one of my areas of interest is animal-related counseling issues. I have become increasingly convinced that the human-animal bond is for many people an integral aspect of wellness, recovery, purpose and hope. Furthermore, I contend that it is misguided for the counseling profession to advocate for the protection of animals that we happen to use in our interventions but to take no stance in the protection of other animals whose lives are intertwined with the people we serve. Anecdotally, I have encountered significant support for this sentiment, both within and outside of the counseling profession. I offer a rationale for it here, not merely as a philosophical concept to be considered hypothetically, but as an invitation and a call to action for ACA decision-makers.

Tracing back to the Hippocratic oath, doctors and mental health counselors are required to maintain the confidentiality of information disclosed to them in the context of the therapeutic relationship. An exception for counselors is their “duty to protect” potential victims from the anticipated violent behavior of a client. I’d like to make the case that a client’s anticipated violence toward animals ought to be included on the counseling profession’s list of actions that require mandatory reporting.

Applying counseling’s code of ethics to animals

Animals are already protected by existing state, national and international laws, and I think that adapting the ACA Code of Ethics to reflect adherence to those laws is both a logical extension of our ethical framework and in keeping with the spirit of our duty to report.

The intention of mandated reporting, dating back to the California Supreme Court’s landmark 1974 Tarasoff ruling (amended in 1976 to replace “duty to warn” with “duty to protect”), was to impose a legal obligation on psychotherapists to notify individuals who might potentially become victims of violence perpetrated by a counselor’s client.

The ACA Code of Ethics names “serious and foreseeable harm” (Standard B.2.a.) as an exception to maintaining confidentiality. In full, the standard reads: “The general requirement that counselors keep information confidential does not apply when disclosure is required to protect clients or identified others from serious and foreseeable harm or when legal requirements demand that confidential information must be revealed. Counselors consult with other professionals when in doubt as to the validity of an exception. Additional considerations apply when addressing end-of-life issues.”

To elevate that standard to afford protection to nonhuman victims, it could be amended to read, “… clients or identified others, including animals protected from cruelty by applicable state laws …” Imagine the profound impact our profession could have on alleviating undue suffering with the addition of those nine words. Our responsibilities as counselors would remain essentially just as they are, but without a pass for ignoring instances of “serious and foreseeable harm” to animals protected by law. The ACA Governing Council’s endorsement of competencies that, in part, safeguard the comfort and well-being of animals used in therapeutic interventions is laudable; extending those concerns to protect the most defenseless victims from the most egregious acts of cruelty seems to me to be a reasonable and much-needed next step.

It is worth noting that animal protection laws vary considerably from state to state. For instance, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, all but two U.S. states impose felony-level penalties for severe forms of animal abuse, and some states allow for the inclusion of animals in domestic violence protection orders. Additionally, some states require mental health evaluations or counseling for animal-abuse offenders. My proposed amendment to our ethics code is intended to be both comprehensive and flexible enough to accommodate the multitude of variations in state laws.

A likely objection to this suggested modification to our code of ethics might involve concerns about damaging client-counselor rapport. However, the same philosophical justification that applies to our current “duty to protect” mandate applies here too. The amended code would simply reflect the standard established by existing law by identifying and protecting those against whom acts of violence constitute legal violations. As it stands now, the ACA Code of Ethics does just that by protecting humans from illegal acts of violence, but it in effect flouts the law when it comes to protecting animals.

In addition to reconciling this disparity in our duty to report, this amendment would be congruent with our duty to take seriously behaviors that are likely to place both the client and the victim in harm’s way. After all, as counselors, we would be hard-pressed to conceive of the therapeutic value of not intervening in the commission of a violent crime. In the case of child abuse, for instance, it would neither contribute to the protection of the victim nor to the progress of the perpetrator to not treat the crime as being of paramount and urgent importance. The same can be said for the significance and immediacy of animal cruelty.

Extending our duty to report to include acts of animal cruelty is a logical and consistent next step because, unlike with other criminal acts (knowledge of which does not warrant breaching confidentiality), animal cruelty is a crime that involves intentional bodily harm. From that perspective, our failure to include it in our duty to report would seem an ethically arbitrary exclusion.

Clinical implications of animal cruelty

Entities such as the U.S. Department of Education, the National Crime Prevention Council and the American Psychological Association agree that cruelty against animals is a warning sign for at-risk youth. Since 1987, the American Psychiatric Association has included animal cruelty as a symptom of childhood conduct disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It defines the disorder as a “repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated.” According to the American Psychiatric Association, additional implications of such tendencies include an increased likelihood for exhibiting similar symptoms in adulthood, sometimes resulting in meeting the criteria for antisocial personality disorder.

Dating back to the early 1960s, researchers have strived to clarify the role that childhood animal cruelty might play as a predictor of subsequent violence against humans. John Macdonald sampled 48 patients with psychotic symptoms, and 52 without. He determined that three primary characteristics — fire setting, enuresis and childhood cruelty toward animals — were consistently discovered among the individuals considered to be the most sadistic. Although he concluded that this combination of traits could serve as a strong predictor of homicidal behavior, he noted that the presence of this triad alone was of minimal value in foretelling such acts.

More recent scholarly literature has increasingly suggested evidence for a connection between animal abuse and either co-occurring or subsequent forms of interpersonal violence. Researchers are divided over the legitimacy of this supposed link. In 2001, Frank Ascione published a thorough overview of psychological, psychiatric and criminological research linking animal abuse to acts of violence against humans. He asserted that animal abuse is an often overlooked warning sign that, in addition to helping to identify youth who are themselves victims, “could help identify youth at risk for perpetrating interpersonal violence.” In 1997, Ascione and colleagues also examined the prevalence with which victims of domestic violence report various forms of cruelty perpetuated by their abusers toward their pets. In 2008, Christopher Hensley and Suzanne Tallichet emphasized an exploration of the motivations behind animal cruelty by interviewing inmates about their childhood animal cruelty crimes.

These and myriad other studies have been met with a range of criticisms, from failing to establish a verifiable link between human and animal violence to applying flawed methodologies. Regardless of what one may think of the reliability or validity of the research to date, a wholesale dismissal of the apparent relationship between animal cruelty and violence against humans seems unwise. More important, however, is that the strength of this proposal does not rest on the legitimacy of such data. Reliance on the supposed link unnecessarily detracts from the central argument that a wanton act of cruelty against a defenseless other is, on its face, egregious enough in my opinion to trump a counselor’s duty to protect a client’s confidentiality.

Why amend our duty to report?

The most obvious beneficiaries of this change in the short term would, of course, be those animals who stand to be spared from enduring abusive acts. But is it not also in the long-term interest of the perpetrator, at least potentially, to have the opportunity for reform sooner rather than later? Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously commented in 1964 that cruelty toward animals “could prove a diagnostic sign, and that such children, diagnosed early, could be helped instead of being allowed to embark on a long career of episodic violence and murder.”

Furthermore, is it not ultimately in the interest of the counseling profession as a whole to err on the side of empathy for the most vulnerable and to draw an ethical distinction between the importance of confidentiality and the urgency of violent crime? Are we not all made better by extending and explicitly endorsing the reach of our ethical consideration to protect even (and, indeed, especially) those with no voice in the matter? Although none of us is currently prohibited from reporting acts of animal cruelty, I have no doubt that adding the amendment proposed here to the ACA Code of Ethics would over time contribute to the prevention of incalculable instances of undue harm.

As counselors, we are called to reflect on the broader implications of our work and on how the changes we help to facilitate contribute to a healthier quality of life. That means considering broadly the wellness of people and, from my viewpoint, the animals with whom people’s lives are so frequently intertwined. ACA’s historic endorsement of competencies for animal-assisted therapy is a heartening step forward as we adjust continually to the social, cultural and philosophical shifts of our times. I hope we will seize on the momentum of this achievement by embracing an amendment to our ethics code that is consistent with our recent progress.

This proposed amendment is consistent with our profession’s historically responsive adjustments to the societal implications of our work and to our forward-thinking recognition of the impact it can have on the world around us. As with past adjustments made to our ethics code, it is incumbent on mental health professionals to remain at the forefront of measures aimed at cultivating justice and advocacy in our service to others. The amendment proposed here would be one more step in the spirit of that legacy.

 

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Troy Gregorino is a licensed professional counselor and certified wellness counselor.
He is a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at University of the Cumberlands. Contact him at tgregorino@gmail.com.

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Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Radical alignment: A psychospiritual approach to conflicting values

By Carol ZA McGinnis August 25, 2016

Standard A.4.b. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics notes that “counselors are aware of — and avoid imposing — their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors” in an ethical practice. Counselor educators and students often need a practical approach for accomplishing this goal when it comes to conflicting religious or spiritual perspectives in the counselor-client relationship. Through a process of radical alignment, this ethical mandate can be accomplished.

Despite recent legislative trends, most notably in Tennessee, the prohibition of referral due to counselor-client value conflict may present a problem for practitioners who need additional help in adopting a genuine empathetic orientation.

One way to approach this potential dilemma is to adopt a psychospiritual approach that is oriented toward the identification of “common ground” or universal themes that are likely to exist in any counselor-client relationship. This kind of self-awareness and exploration is found in pastoral counseling programs that have a vested interest in integrating a religious or spiritual view in counselor training versus secular versions that tend to view this aspect of the client simply as a component of client diversity. The problem with the latter view is that it discounts intellectual and emotional aspects of religious or spiritual beliefs that inform the counselor photo-1462663608395-404cb6246eaffrom a holistic level. When we are not able to bring our full capacity into the session — if we merely bracket, ignore or set aside this part of our humanity — it would seem implausible to fully attend to a client’s needs.

No empirical research has been conducted on the term “radical alignment.” The idea is supported, however, by the collective works of Kenneth Pargament, Henri Nouwen and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, each of whom contributed to a wider understanding of how religious and spiritual views intersect with human interaction. They determined that religious and spiritual beliefs are an invaluable part of daily living oriented toward meaning, spiritual growth and our identity as a member of a larger community.

Recognition of universal themes that connect all people regardless of faith tradition, spiritual orientation or creed can provide the counselor with valuable insight into the inner workings of the client without compromising the counselor’s core beliefs.

 

Authenticity and trust

The idea of radical alignment begins with the premise that the humanistic principles of authenticity and trust must reside at the core of the counseling relationship. We find these same fundamental principles in the ACA Code of Ethics as veracity and fidelity, which seem difficult, if not impossible, to promote when personal values have been completely removed from the interaction.

Although counselors are health professionals much like physicians and nurses, we rely on the establishment of rapport in the counseling relationship, which is more akin to religious confession than a physical checkup. In this complex aspect of the counseling relationship, only the affirmation of commonly held beliefs and values can provide a tangible path to an ethical practice.

The crux of the problem then becomes more about the “how” of finding solid ground when a counselor’s and client’s beliefs and values clash. How does the counselor begin to determine these elements to connect, or align, with the client? The answer is to return to the fundamentals of what it takes to provide a comprehensive counselor education: the development of appropriate awareness, knowledge and skills (http://www.cacrep.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/2016-CACREP-Standards.pdf).

 

Awareness, knowledge and skills

To accomplish this, counselors-in-training need practice in exploration and self-awareness activities that will help them to identify and validate their own beliefs and values. These activities will increase their knowledge of religious or spiritual language and behaviors that may alienate clients who hold very different views, while also helping them develop skills for determining universal themes through which radical alignment can occur.

Awareness in this capacity might involve exploration of previous beliefs and values that have stayed consistent or changed over the counselor-in-training’s lifetime. Core values may be highlighted through activities such as journaling, digital storytelling and discussion board exchanges in an online environment. Through these activities, counselors-in-training can learn how to communicate specific meanings, values and beliefs that they have attributed to specific life events and that might guide their day-to-day decisions.

Face-to-face exploration might involve dyad or group activities that include the creative expression of core beliefs. This could involve sharing symbols, rituals, sacred texts or even types of food that help to bring about deeper awareness of how beliefs and values are affirmed and communicated.

Gaining knowledge of what others believe, with attention given to ritual, family tradition and sacred texts, can help counselor-in-training learn about language and actions that clients could interpret as hostile or distancing. When structured responsibly, respectful exposure to various religious and spiritual views can help affirm the belief systems of counselors-in-training and provide a deeper understanding of how these values may fit within the larger context of other worldviews.

This process should not be part of a master plan to bend or subordinate individual beliefs. Rather, it should highlight similarities and differences that can be important in counseling. For example, the concept of prayer may seem universal to one student until further exploration highlights how this term can mean very different things to different clients, or even potentially have no connection to clients who hold Eastern religious/spiritual views.

To determine universal themes, the counselor-in-training must learn to identify client beliefs and values that may be related to the client’s presenting problem without feeling threatened. Although it is still possible for unexpected countertransference to occur, previous exploration and awareness of counselor beliefs will mitigate this response and allow the counselor to focus on determining underlying universal themes. Even if these themes are not completely consistent with the client’s views, recognition of these elements can help the counselor to align with the client in a radical way.

Let’s say, for example, that the counselor-in-training is a Pentecostal Christian with devout beliefs that relate to the sanctity of marriage. The client, meanwhile, professes no particular faith and engages in casual sex with many partners. Further exploration of the client’s values may result in the prioritization of truth as a core belief. This value would be understood as a universal theme that cuts through religious and spiritual orientation and can provide the counselor with a platform to align with the client. The counselor-in-training may not be able to genuinely empathize with the ramifications of the client’s sexual promiscuity, but her desire for truth in all relationships would be a place where radical alignment could occur.

So too might a Muslim counselor-in-training who possesses a strong religious belief to honor his father and mother connect with a client who regularly lies to his parents through a shared universal theme of a desire for justice. This focus would permit the counselor-in-training to be genuine in his empathy for the client who feels bullied and ignored by those people who are closest to him in his life. Through radical alignment, the counselor-in-training could build trust with this client. That sense of trust would be needed by this client to help him move away from self-destructive behaviors and toward healthier goals that have been identified in an authentic counseling relationship.

In short, this process occurs through three steps:

1) Collect and identify client beliefs and values associated with the presenting problem.

2) Determine a core belief that can be understood as a universal theme that is shared by the counselor-in-training.

3) Engage in radical alignment with the client to promote fidelity and trust in the counseling relationship.

 

 

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Carol ZA McGinnis, a licensed clinical professional counselor and national certified counselor, is a pastoral counselor and counselor educator who specializes in anger processing. Her passion involves teaching with attention paid to religion and spirituality as positive factors in both counseling and counselor development. Contact her at cmcginnis@messiah.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

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