Confidence at issue Therapeutic privacy: High Court to determine whether therapists enjoy confidentiality.

March 11, 1996

IS CONFIDENTIALITY crucial to psychotherapy? Most therapists and most patients argue that it is. Knowing that a court of law could compel a therapist to reveal what a client confided in a counseling session would severely hamper the trust that is essential to the healing process.

Common law has long accepted this principle in regard to priests and the confessional. More recently, the law has faced the issue in regard to psychiatrists and other therapists. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have recognized the value of confidentiality in the therapeutic process and have adopted some form of therapist-patient privilege, particularly in regard to psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. But a case argued before the Supreme Court recently seeks to test whether that privilege should include social workers as well as more highly trained therapists. We believe it should.

The case arises from a fatal police shooting in a Chicago suburb, in which the officer later sought counseling from a licensed social worker. When the family of the deceased sued, it sought to compel disclosure of those confidential communications. The social worker and the officer refused to consent to the disclosure.

Illinois law specifically extends the psychotherapist-patient privilege to social workers, but this was a federal lawsuit and the judge instructed the jury that it could presume that the information withheld would have been unfavorable to the defendant. The jury awarded the family damages of $545,000. An appellate court set aside the verdict, declaring that the judge's instructions to the jury were faulty in regard to the confidentiality of the counseling sessions.

Now the Supreme Court is being asked to determine whether, in fact, the privilege does extend to social workers. It should. Their services can be significantly less expensive than psychiatrists or clinical psychologists and thus are more widely available.

The level of stress in law enforcement jobs and many other professions in American life is rising and, presumably, so is the need to deal with these tensions. In many cases, employers will pay for workers to see a counselor or social worker, but not TC higher priced psychotherapist. Denying the principle of confidentiality to those sessions will have the sinister effect of putting therapy beyond the reach of some of the people whose jobs routinely put them in stressful situations.

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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