Behind the Scenes
All conversations are held in the strictest confidence.
The Definition of Pastoral Counseling Confidentiality
Confidential information is information which is produced by a person who has a reasonable expectation that the information will only be shared by other people with the explicit consent of the person who produced it. Confidentiality of information is applicable without any time limit unless otherwise specified by the originating party.
The therapeutic relationship between a Biblical and Crisis Care Counselor and their client contains an abundance of confidential information. This means that it cannot be shared without the consent of the client. Confidentiality applies legally to information which people are exposed to firsthand, but also secondhand.
In other words, if you handle a piece of confidential information, you may be in a breach of confidentiality if you were not the one who was explicitly authorized to see the information or to disclose the information.
Confidentiality is encoded in the HIPAA privacy rule in the US. If the regulations regarding confidentiality are breached, there can be legal recourse against all of the parties who were involved in the breach except for the originating party.
Why Does Confidentiality Exist?
As a Biblical, crisis, and trauma care counselor, you are obligated to uphold your profession’s ethical standards. Your clients have a right to privacy, and you have a duty to hold up your end of the bargain by respecting that right. Clients will share their most intimate problems with their therapists, and they do so with the understanding that their comments will not leave the room.
Without the legal guarantee of counselor -client confidentiality, performing effective therapy would be much more difficult, especially if the client struggles with shyness or social anxiety.
Furthermore, if clients couldn’t be certain of the privacy of the privileged communications, they share with you, many wouldn’t be attending therapy at all. Confidentiality serves to protect clients from the outside world and provides a therapeutically essential way of compartmentalizing their life.
Who Does Confidentiality Protect?
As a legal construct, confidentiality protects your clients first and foremost. The proceedings of counseling or coaching sessions are not events which are open to the public record as a result of confidentiality, which means that clients are allowed to discuss things which might be problematic in a wider context.
Clients can be emotionally secure when they confide in their pastor or counselor, and they can also be certain they are protected from most admissions of crimes or breaches of contracts so long as they are made during counseling or coaching.
Confidentiality also protects the counselor to a much lesser extent by relieving the counselor of the obligation to testify in legal matters involving the client’s therapy. If confidentiality were not enshrined in law, counselors could be compelled to testify regarding their client’s therapy for various legal or criminal proceedings, which would be a substantial amount of unpaid time resulting from counseling, and coaching work with a client.
Lastly, confidentiality laws protect the state. If confidentiality had to be agreed upon with a unique contract between every counselor and client, breaches of that contract would inevitably end up in court. This would add an additional burden to the court system, which confidentiality laws mitigate by preemptively defining critical elements of the legal and economic contract between counselor and client.
Which Circumstances Are Exempt from Confidentiality?
There are a handful of situations in which the normal rules regarding confidentiality do not apply. These exceptions to confidentiality in counseling crop up fairly frequently, and therapists need to know how to navigate them because they’re intertwined with essential business practices like billing.
These situations do not necessarily obligate the pastor or counselor to breach confidentiality, but rather pertain to the situations in which confidentiality is subject to structured disclosures. Knowing the difference between these sanctioned openings in confidentiality and the situations where pastors, counselors or coaches are obligated to report a breach is critical to understanding confidentiality.
According to the privacy and confidentiality section of the APA’s ethical code of conduct for therapists, there are four general situations which are exempt from confidentiality:
The client is an imminent and violent threat towards themselves or others.
There is a billing situation which requires a condoned disclosure.
Sharing information is necessary to facilitate client care across multiple providers.
Sharing information is necessary to treat the client.
Of these situations, only the first obligates pastors or counselors to break confidentiality. The limits of confidentiality in counseling stop at the gate whenever clients express the intent to harm themselves or others.
Which Situations Obligate Counselors/Coaches to Break Confidentiality?
Knowing when to break confidentiality in counseling is key because there are certain situations in which the pastor or counselor is legally obligated to do so. If the client confidentiality is not breached in these cases, the pastor or counselor may be subject to censure if there is subsequently a discovery of their failure to fulfill their legal obligation.
The following situations typically legally obligate counselor to break confidentiality and seek outside assistance:
Detailed planning of future suicide attempts
Other concrete signs of suicidal intent
Planned violence towards others.
Planned future child abuse.
Formerly committed child abuse
Experiencing child abuse
Expecting to experience future child abuse.
These are general guidelines which should alert every counselor that they have reached the limits of confidentiality in counseling with their client.
If the pastor or counselor expect to approach these limits regularly with a given client, it may be helpful to explain to the client the obligations of the pastor/counselor. Nonetheless, doing so will likely compromise the counseling relationship with the client at least to a small extent.
Explaining the limits of confidentiality before starting any counseling/coaching whatsoever may be a preferable choice to allowing a client to unwittingly breach confidentiality and then have the counselor's legally obligated actions land the client behind bars or in a mental institution.
As an addendum, there are also regulations in some places regarding the limits of confidentiality in counseling associated with certain crimes, such as:
His love endures forever,
Marlene Hoenig, Missionary
In Christ Alone we stand, all other ground is sinking sand
Globe International Ministries, Inc.
Global Alliance Networks
American Association of Christian Counselors
Christian Alliance for Orphans
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