Avoiding Liability Bulletin – July 2005
… Care must be taken to protect the confidentiality of not only the records and communications between therapist and patient, but the “fact of the relationship” as well.
Suppose a police officer comes to your office and wants to know whether you are treating a particular patient. Or suppose a welfare worker wants to know whether or not you are seeing a particular patient. The appropriate answer to give (modified by your own style), unless applicable law compels you to act otherwise, is: “I’m sorry, but I cannot help you. I do not comment upon who my patients are and who are not patients.” For those who may be a bit uncertain, you could add: “If the law is otherwise, please let me know the section of law (so that you can look at it and seek information about it) that compels me to answer. I generally abide by the law.”
The “fact of the relationship” is also important when it comes to such seemingly mundane things as sending mail to the patient or calling patients at their home or other location. Perhaps a married person comes for treatment without the knowledge of the spouse. If a therapist’s letter or bill is sent to the patient’s house, even if it is marked “personal and confidential,” the spouse may thereby be informed that their spouse is in therapy. Likewise with a phone call or phone message from the therapist. Make sure that you have the patient’s permission to communicate with them in the manner of communication chosen. This should usually be done at the outset of the relationship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
"At the Intersection of Law and Psychotherapy"
Richard S. Leslie is an attorney who has practiced at the intersection of law and psychotherapy for the past twenty-five years. Most recently, he was a consultant to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), where he worked with their various state divisions to develop and implement their legislative agendas. He also provided telephone consultation services to AAMFT members regarding legal and ethical issues confronting practitioners of diverse licensure nationwide. Additionally, he wrote articles regarding legal and ethical issues for their Family Therapy Magazine and presented at workshops on a variety of legal issues.
Prior to his work with AAMFT, Richard was Legal Counsel to the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) for approximately twenty-two years. He was director of Government Relations for CAMFT, and as such was the architect of CAMFT’s widely regarded and successful legislative agenda. He represented CAMFT before the regulatory board (the Board of Behavioral Sciences) and was a tireless advocate for due process and fairness for licensees and applicants. He was a regular presenter at workshops and was consistently evaluated as CAMFT’s most highly rated presenter. He also sat with the CAMFT Ethics Committee and acted as their advisor on matters pertaining to the enforcement of ethical standards.
Richard is an acknowledged expert on matters pertaining to the interrelationship between law and the practice of marriage and family therapy and psychotherapy. For many years, he taught Law and Ethics courses for a number of colleges and universities in their marriage and family therapy degree programs. While at CAMFT, he provided telephone consultation services with thousands of therapists in California and elsewhere for over twenty years. He is highly regarded for his judgment, his expertise, his direct style, and his clarity.
Richard has been the driving force for many of the changes and additions to the laws of the State of California that affect MFTs. In 1980, he was primarily responsible for achieving passage of the "Freedom of Choice Law" that required insurance companies to pay for psychotherapy services performed by MFTs. Passage of that law allowed MFTs to earn a living, allowed them to better compete in the marketplace, and strengthened the profession in California by leading to a great increase in the number of licensees and CAMFT membership. Currently, about half of the licensed marriage and family therapists in the country are licensed in California.
While at CAMFT, Richard was primarily responsible for, among other things, the successful effort to criminalize sex between a patient and a therapist. He was successful in extending the laws of psychotherapist-patient privilege to MFTs, thereby giving patients the same level of privacy protection as when seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist. He fought tirelessly and successfully for the right of MFTs to refer to themselves as "psychotherapists," to perform psychological testing services, to be appropriately reimbursed by California’s Victims of Crime Program, and to be employed in county mental health agencies throughout California.
Richard was admitted to the Bar in New York (1969) and in California (1973). While practicing in New York, he served as a public defender, and later, as an Assistant District Attorney. Shortly after moving to California, he worked for the San Diego County Human Relations Commission as their Law and Justice Officer. While there, he worked successfully to achieve greater racial diversity in the criminal jury selection system and to expose and stop police abuse. For such work with that agency, he was the recipient of the Civil Libertarian of the Year Award by the San Diego Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.