As a writer, educator and counselor certified in two countries, I find myself consulting with folks all over the globe. I belong to various counseling-related groups and find much inspiration therein. I’ve also found many a post or question that made me cringe. Not because these professionals were less bright, energetic or talented than others, but because it would appear that their educational programs and real-world experiences have been lacking in some key areas that would help ensure not just the highest quality of care but also the highest level of safety for them, their staff members and their clients.
I’m often asked why I write for so many places pro bono, and my reply is simple: I’m trying to give back to the profession that has enabled me to help so many in need while also providing a good life for me and mine. If we fail to feed our profession, if we fail to fill the current training and experiential gaps that currently affect our programing, then the future of the counseling profession will begin to look bleak. Sharing knowledge freely is one of the best ways to make lasting change in our profession.
As you read over the following issues that I have found to be very common, think about how they may apply to you or to someone with whom you work. If they apply, consider ways you can move to improve the situation. We are all on the same team, and we will ALL make mistakes in our work. Let’s do what we can to ensure that when we do make errors, that we remain safe, both physically and from a liability standpoint.
Issue: Having only one staff member working in the office when it is open for business
Concerns: Being the only person in an office (other than clients) increases the risk to a clinician in many ways. It can pose a physical safety risk should a client become physically or sexually threatening. It can pose a health risk should a major health issue such as an injury, heart attack or other collapse occur. It also can make it much harder to defend yourself should a current or former client ever make an accusation against you. Having another staff member available to report that nothing out of the ordinary happened that day and that no signs of impropriety were present can make a difference.
Ways to avoid: Always make it a practice to have at least two people in the office area at all times. This doesn’t mean that you need two clinicians. The people present might be a receptionist, an assistant, interns, a biller or even volunteers. My offices have a system in place to ensure that two people are in every office every day (last-minute health issues notwithstanding). Sometimes the “extra” person is a staff member; other times it is a graduate, doctoral or undergraduate intern or volunteer.
Issue: Not having documentation for services provided, often because you do not work with third-party payers
Concerns: I’ve seen this happen many times over the years. A clinician, often in a small private practice, decides that he or she will not take insurance payments and thus will no longer keep therapeutic records of any kind. Instead, the clinician determines simply to keep a tally of billable hours. I’ve also seen cash-only practices that keep no records whatsoever.
This leaves so many issues that it could be an article unto itself. Treatment record are required regardless of insurance. They are part of the profession and are subject to ethical and legal requirements (see Standard A.1.b., Records and Documentation, of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, as well as state and national laws).
Ways to avoid: Avoid going by what another counselor tells you and instead consult the ACA Code of Ethics and applicable laws. Review and use online resources, and develop documentation and a system to keep all records secure. Some free resources can be found here at docwarren.org/images/Documentational_Requirements_for_Practice.pdf and docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.
Issue: Little to no prescreening of clients
Concerns: Without proper screening, you risk accepting clients with needs that are beyond the scope of your practice, knowledge, experience and education. This lack of screening can lead to safety issues, such as in a case in which the client is potentially violent. It also can lead to wasted session times and time-consuming referral services and follow-up that could have been avoided with a simple screening.
Ways to avoid: Use a prescreening form and process at the time of first contact with potential clients to ensure that they are a good fit for your program. If they are, schedule them accordingly. Should they not be a good fit, have a list of more appropriate placements, complete with phone numbers and other contact information, at the ready to offer them. This will potentially save hours, both for you and for the prospective client.
Issue: Keeping a clear path between you and the exit
Concerns: In the case of client violence or client physical collapse, having a clear path between you and the office door can greatly increase your chances of a positive outcome. I have consulted with clinicians who were assaulted by clients and found that they had no system in place for keeping a clear path to the door. In addition, they lacked safety training (see below).
Ways to avoid: Furniture placement can do wonders to increase safety in an office environment. Place “your” chair or other furniture as close to the door as possible, while placing client seating a bit farther from the door (even a few extra inches can make a difference). When greeting or exiting the room with a client, try to be the one to open the door for them. Once the door is open, you can allow them to walk out before you because with the door open, there is less risk. Plus, chances are great that your office opens into a public space.
Issue: Lack of safety training/not knowing what to do if a problem arises
Concerns: In many instances I have consulted on after a clinician has been assaulted, the clinician lacked basic insights into or training for when a problem might arise. Don’t get me wrong — depending on the situation, an injury can result no matter the amount of training a clinician has received, but a lack of knowledge only increases the odds of injury.
Ways to avoid: Depending on the treatment setting, the use of body alarms, comprehensive safety training and awareness exercises can be beneficial. Body alarms may not be needed in the average program, but those who serve violent offenders or those with a history of violence can surely justify the expense. For the average counseling program, consider having someone conduct a safety assessment who is knowledgeable both about safety and your treatment setting. Conduct regular in-service trainings and exercises, and make basic skill training part of new employee orientation. The few hours and few dollars spent can make a huge difference.
Issue: No way to communicate to other staff should an emergency arise
Concerns: Some nonprofit counseling programs are small, with just a few offices that share common walls. Other programs have large campuses that utilize different buildings or are spread across multiple acres, making it difficult (if not impossible) to hear a staff member in distress and in need of assistance.
Ways to avoid: Have a means of communication in place for all employees based on the office or campus setup. In our programs, staff members use handheld walkie-talkies whenever they are out of range of the reception or other high-traffic areas. These radios are only used in the event of an emergency, so there is little worry of intrusion or distraction. Our reception staff always have one with them in their area so that they can call for assistance if needed. Systems can range from about $100 into the thousands, depending on the number of handsets needed and type of system.
Issue: No receptionist or other staff in the waiting area
Concerns: Often, treatment records, schedules, cash boxes and other vital information are stored at the reception desk. Failure to keep this station manned can lead to theft of charts, especially if a volatile legal case (such as a divorce or custody hearing) is going on that involves one of your clients. An unmanned reception area can also lead to the loss of valuable property, folks wondering around the building and interrupting sessions, and a host of other issues.
Years ago, two different local programs contacted me about potentially wanting to partner on a few projects with my program. Both had great credentials, and as the program director, I decided to explore the options. If nothing else, I figured they could be referral sources. One day, I had a last-minute cancellation and decided to visit the programs.
At the first one, I found the door unlocked and the reception area deserted. I was able to roam the halls and noticed no white noise machines or other means of ensuring privacy. I also found confidential mail in plain view next to a few office doors.
I was greeted by much of the same at the second program, in addition to unlocked chart cabinets and confidential information sitting on top of a desk. The desk was also unlocked, as evidenced by several partially open drawers. Needless to say, I passed on any possible partnerships or referrals.
Ways to avoid: Keep cabinets locked and valuables secured when not in use. Hire staff or take on interns and volunteers whenever needed and train them on privacy laws, safety and securing documentation.
Although this article is far from comprehensive, it highlights some of the more commonly found safety issues in smaller programming. Do what you can to keep your nonprofit program running smoothly while addressing safety and liability concerns. With a bit of prevention and an eye toward being proactive, we can do much to lower our liability and keep ourselves (and our staff members and clients) safer. People are counting on us.
Nonprofit News looks at issues that are of interest to counselor clinicians, with a focus on those who are working in nonprofit settings.
“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.
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.