Clinicians are a courageous bunch. First, we take on some of the most troubled folks in our society with the inspired aim of helping them function better, more productively, more safely and harmoniously in their families and social groups.

As if that goal is not lofty enough, therapists are also frequently dragged into our clients’ legal battles with others. The therapist could have started with the humble and seemingly achievable goal of helping a child manage her anxiety and diminish her depression so that her school performance will improve. Or, it might be helping a grieving widower adjust to life without his soulmate of 40 years. The goal might be to aid a frustrated couple learn to communicate better and increase their intimacy.

In each of the former scenarios, things can go very, very wrong in a heartbeat. In the first example, the therapist may learn that the child’s anxiety and depression is a direct result of the parents’ continual bickering – and that fractured relationship may one day split wide open and a custody battle ensues dragging the therapist unwittingly into the fray.

In the second example, the widower may not only be grieving, but in his loneliness and heartache, he may assert his legal rights to a child of one of his adult children and subpoena the therapist to testify as to his (the widower’s) mental health and fitness to either obtain visitation and/or custody of the subject child.

In the third situation, the couple – with a 50% or more statistical chance – will divorce. At that point, one party may try to drag the clinician into the battle over the children. One party may give permission for the therapist to release the confidential records of their work as a couple, and one may refuse to give permission. The therapist then finds him/herself over the proverbial barrel, and a wobbly one at that. Not a great place to be.

In all these scenarios, the therapeutic relationship is at threatened. The child whose parents have now divorced and raged a custody war likely will subpoena the therapy records and it will be a miracle if the child is allowed to (or feels safe enough to) continue therapy after the dust settles, which may take several years. The widower may not continue therapy if his bid for the child custody/visitation fails – he may blame the therapist whether that has any reality component or not. And, the couple will certainly not be seeing the therapist any longer and although one may have wanted to see the therapist for individual work following the separation, the likelihood of that happening after the records were seized is pretty slim.

How to manage these – and the other myriad variations – scenarios? My consultations are aimed at addressing not only the legal issues that therapists face, but also the clinical issues. I have been in clinical practice since the early 1980s and have experienced a multitude of murky issues that usually need to be addressed from a clinical, as well as legal perspective. Feel free to call or email me if you are considering such a consultation. I love working with clinicians and am told that the feeling is mutual!!


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Deborah M. Henson