Therapist-patient conversations are confidential until something happens that the therapist is required to report.
Unlike attorney-client confidentiality, therapists don't have a complete duty to keep therapy sessions private. In some cases they are required by law to break confidentiality and inform police of the content of a therapy conversation.
One of those situations is known in legal circles as the 'duty to warn.'
In general, conversations between a therapist and patient are confidential. Protecting those talks is meant to encourage honesty and trust which is an important part of any therapeutic interaction.
But a California case from 1976 limited on how far that privacy can extend.
In the case, a patient named Poddar confided in his therapist his intention to kill a woman who had spurned him. The therapist requested that police detain Poddar but she didn't warn the woman and Poddar stabbed and killed her. Her parents sued claiming that the therapist had a duty to warn the woman or her parents.
The courts agreed and that case has led to reporting requirements for therapists. While they vary by state, the duty to warn in the case of imminent harm is similar across the country.
The duty to warn requires a therapist to report any reasonable threat of serious harm to a known victim.
It generally doesn't apply for admissions of past crimes and it also doesn't require disclosure for general threats with no target. Therapists are only required to report if there is a real threat of harm to a particular person or group of people.
In some cases, a patient's statements about past crimes can lead to a duty to disclose.
Those situations are limited to times when the patient appears likely to commit the same crime again. In the case of admitted domestic violence or child abuse, the patient's attitude may indicate that the harm will occur again.
If the therapist reasonably believes that the victim is still in danger of serious harm, they are required to report it.
Therapists aren't the only ones with a duty to report, other professionals have some requirements as well. If you're not sure about your duty to report, ask our legal experts.
The requirement to report tries to balance a therapist's duty of confidentiality with the need for public safety. If a known victim could be protected, the duty is always to keep the person safe.
- Who Has a Duty to Report Child Abuse? (FindLaw's Blotter)
- Etan Patz Case: When Must You Report a Confession? (FindLaw's Blotter)
- Selena Gomez Stalker Under Temporary Restraining Order (The Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog)