No code of ethics could possibly cover every kind of situation you’ll encounter as a family counselor. But you can rely on the basic tenets of your organization’s ethical guidelines to get you through most encounters. The types and varieties of issues you’ll experience vary depending on the type of counseling you practice. How you handle those issues may depend on your agency’s rules and not your own set of values.
You’ll face dilemmas that may challenge your own beliefs and values. For example, while you know that you must maintain the confidence of a young teenager who tells you she is gay, you'll need to decide whether to tell her parents or not. To compound the dilemma, you may believe that being gay is wrong. The first thing is to get your own views out of the way. No matter how you feel about an issue, it should not cloud your judgment when you decide how to proceed with the information.
While you know that you shouldn’t see clients socially outside of the counseling arena, you may encounter times when you find yourself in situations with family members of clients. Especially if you live in a small town with few experienced counselors, you'll need to define the level of boundaries you must build and maintain. You'll need to decide whether it's a conflict to counsel your child's teacher or members of your church and their families. And if you’re counseling the entire family, you'll face ethical challenges that you must resolve about how much interaction you'll have in social situations. These and other questions must be made keeping your clients’ best interests in mind, not your own social needs. The answers vary from one family to another.
The welfare of your client is your primary responsibility, according to the American Counseling Association code of ethics and most other professional organizations. You may face times when you must think of others, though, like when your client may pose a danger to her family. She won't think you have her best interests at heart when you recommend removing your client from the family to preserve the safety of other children, even though you may rightly counter that in the long run, it is. Making decisions that affect your client should not be taken lightly without extensive research and proof, especially when faced with the safety of children.
Parents have the legal right and obligation to make decisions for their children, but you’ll often find yourself in a conundrum when faced with keeping a child’s confidentiality. At the same time, you also must consider the legalities of your decisions, who gets to read your reports and what information you’re legally bound to report to the family unit, social workers, educators and law enforcement. Counselors are legally bound, for example, to report a potential murder or suicide and when they hear about elder or child abuse.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."