Faced with the dilemma of entering into a dual relationship with a 14-year-old, freshman member of the cheerleading squad who approached me for counseling her for sexual abuse at the hands of her father, I decided that I would resign my position as coach of the cheerleading squad and continue only in the role of counselor. I reached this decision after carefully weighing the ethical and legal aspects of the situation, including a consultation with a counselor colleague, to ensure that I had, in fact, taken all issues into consideration and been objective in my analysis of the case. The professional ethical principles taken into account, legal aspects and the method of reasoning used were also documented, as a matter of professional practice and record.
To start with, conscious of the fact that I was dealing with a minor in this particular case, I looked up the legal requirements involved in counseling a minor who was being sexually abused by a parent. The United States law decrees that all counselors and other professionals must report cases of suspected child abuse to a governmental agency. The statutes protect "reporters from liability as long as reports are made in good faith...defamation of character... would not prevail," which thankfully straightaway resolved any doubt of my own professional standing and interests, and that of the school being affected in handling the case. It was also very clear that such a report would have to be filed immediately, both with the government agency as well as the high school authorities (Remley & Herlihy).
While there was no ambiguity as far as the legal aspects of the case were concerned, I still had to consider that counselors must "exercise their professional judgement before and after making such reports. They should have several goals in mind, which include (a) maintaining, to the extent possible, any counseling relationship...(b) being concerned about the welfare of the alleged victim before and after the report (Remley & Fry, 1993); - helping the parties deal with the process that follows reports; and (d) fulfilling their statutory legal obligations" (Remley & Herlihy).
My first consideration, however, was to assess the counselee's motives in seeking professional help, in the first place. It wasn't too much of a leap of logic to assume that the child had developed a degree of trust and confidence in me, through our interaction on the cheerleading team. There was also the consideration that "one of the basic tenets upon which the counseling relationship rests is that clients have a right to expect confidentiality...Counselors are also committed to promoting the autonomy and freedom of choice of their clients, Every child, regardless of age, has an ethical right to privacy..." (Remley & Herlihy).
The first ethical principle, facing me was, therefore, the fact that obeying the law and immediately filing a report to the school and governmental authorities, may be construed by the child as a betrayal of trust, whereas not reporting it may well endanger the child's safety and future welfare. If the counselee saw my actions as a betrayal of trust, then the future success of any counseling relationship would be endangered.
Linked with this decision was also a second legal aspect as in the fact that, though currently, minors have more governmental protection, the law still usually requires that children assert any legal rights through their parents or guardians. Parental consent is also usually required in the case of counseling minors, not to mention the 'parental right' to receive all related information regarding the welfare of the child.
Though child abuse is treated as an exception, the issue remained that the non-offending parent may have the legal and ethical right to be informed about the child seeking professional help. Nancy Perry, Executive Director ACA observes "...To say that a student absolutely can't see a counselor without permission...severely abridge their right to free speech...jeopardize their ability to report abuse and neglect...." In the same article, Perry also emphasizes that parental consent is not necessary in the event of abuse and that there is a general agreement that high school students are generally mature enough to decide for themselves if they need help. Interestingly, Mark Salo, a school counselor at Sacajawea Middle School, in Bosner, Mont and past chair of the ACA Ethics Committee also says, "the ACA Legal Issues Report suggests that there may be some consideration given by the court for what is called 'mature minor' status, when consent is an issue (Counseling Today Online, 1997).
To reach a decision as to whether I should go ahead and file the necessary reports, as mandated by law, I also considered the fact that the child may have approached me hoping that I would intervene with her parents and seek a resolution that would keep the matter private and the family structure intact. The aforesaid reasoning was based on my existing relationship with the counselee, as the coach of the cheerleading team, wherein I had observed that the counselee was more reserved than her peers. To that extent, I felt she may have a "heightened desire for privacy...related to the confusion regarding self and others..." (Remley & Herlihy).
It was at this juncture that I first realized the risks of my continuing a dual relationship. Already, I was factoring in my observations in my other capacity into the counseling relationship, thereby running the risk of being less than objective. Immediately, however, I decided that the first step was to discuss the issues involved with the child as in the legal requirements, the consequences of filing such a report to both her and her family and the problems inherent in my acting as her counselor while continuing to function as her cheerleading coach, which would involve both her and my interacting with her parents on a social level.
Thankfully, here, the ethical guidelines were quite clear: "Enzer (1984) has noted that child psychiatrists are expected...inform children or seek their agreement to activities that affect them though this is not required by law" (Remley & Herlihy). I chose to do this despite knowing that the school authorities may prefer to follow 'the letter rather than the spirit of the law,' because ethically I felt that any decision should be based with the child's welfare as the primary consideration.
To that extent, it was important to first determine the extent of the problem, the supportive role, if any, that other members of the family could play and only after gathering and analyzing the information should any other step, including following legal requirements be taken.
I, further, resolved to decide on continuing a dual relationship only post determining the extent to which the situation would lead to legal investigation and action. At this stage, I was clear only on one point and that was, if legal intervention were to take place, it would be impossible to maintain professional integrity and continue to interact in any other relationship. The reasoning here was clear and straightforward in terms of the inevitable tension that would arise by my having to co-ordinate the case with the investigating agency, make possible court appearances etc., all of which would make any kind of normal social interaction next to impossible.
Such a situation would also place the counselee under increased pressure by placing her in a tense social situation, where she would likely to feel the pull of conflict between her family, counselor and that too, amongst her peer group.
Here, I fully appreciated the reasoning behind the ASCA code A.1.a that states "Has a primary obligation to the counselee who is to be treated with respect as a unique individual." Implicit in this code, which significantly is placed right upfront, is that the welfare of the client has to be placed before all other considerations, be it legal, social or self.
Other ethical codes that I considered while assessing the case were A.1.d, which talks about being conversant with the law "...relating to counselees and strives to ensure that the rights of counselees are adequately provided for and protected," which I interpreted as not blindly resorting to text book principles. And A.2.a, which so aptly, advises "Informs the counselee of the purposes, goals...rules...under which he/she may receive counseling at or before the time the counseling relationship is entered...meaning and limits of confidentiality are clearly defined...." The last code, to my mind, was particularly important in this case, because it was my responsibility to make the child understand the familial and social pressures that would likely be triggered by legal action. Of course, I closely studied code A.4 that advises against dual relationships that might impair objectivity and increase the risk of harm to the client (ASCA Web site).
I considered the option of not reporting the case, fully cognizant of the fact that such an action would not conform to either the law, the ASCA, school policy or my own professional and personal interests. What helped me consider this option at all was asking…