Continuing Education & Resources for Mental Health Professionals

Ethical Information

Selected Ethical Standards About Informed Consent:
Counselors (from ACA Code of Ethics)

Section A: The Counseling Relationship
. . .

A.2.a. Informed Consent: Clients have the freedom to choose whether to enter into or remain in a counseling relationship and need adequate information about the counseling process and the counselor. Counselors have an obligation to review in writing and verbally with clients the rights and responsibilities of both counselors and clients. Informed consent is an ongoing part of the counseling process, and  counselors appropriately document discussions of informed consent throughout the counseling relationship.

A.2.b. Types of Information Needed: Counselors explicitly explain to clients the nature of all services provided. They inform clients about issues such as, but not limited to, the following: the purposes, goals, techniques, procedures, limitations, potential risks, and benefits of services; the counselor’s qualifications, credentials, relevant experience, and approach to counseling; continuation of services upon the incapacitation or death of the counselor; the role of technology; and other pertinent information.  Counselors take steps to ensure that clients understand the implications of diagnosis and the intended use of tests and reports. Additionally, counselors inform clients about fees and billing arrangements, including procedures for nonpayment of fees. Clients have the right to  confidentiality and to be provided with an explanation of its limits (including how supervisors and/or treatment or interdisciplinary team professionals are involved), to obtain clear information about their records, to participate in the ongoing counseling plans, and to refuse any services or modality changes and to be advised of the consequences of such refusal.

A.2.c. Developmental and Cultural Sensitivity: Counselors communicate information in ways that are both developmentally and culturally appropriate. Counselors use clear and understandable language when discussing issues related to informed consent. When clients have difficulty understanding the language that counselors use, counselors provide necessary services (e.g., arranging for a qualified interpreter or translator) to ensure comprehension by clients. In collaboration with clients, counselors consider cultural implications of informed consent procedures and, where possible, counselors adjust their practices accordingly.

A.2.d. Inability to Give Consent: When counseling minors, incapacitated adults, or other persons unable to give voluntary consent, counselors seek the assent of clients to services and include them in decision making as appropriate. Counselors recognize the need to balance the ethical rights of clients to make choices, their capacity to give consent or assent to receive services, and parental or familial legal rights and responsibilities to protect these clients and make decisions on their behalf.

A.2.e. Mandated Clients: Counselors discuss the required limitations to confidentiality when working with clients who have been mandated for counseling services. Counselors also explain what type of information and with whom that information is shared prior to the beginning of counseling. The client may choose to refuse services. In this case, counselors will, to the best of their ability, discuss with the client the potential consequences of refusing counseling services.

A.3. Clients Served by Others: When counselors learn that their clients are in a professional relationship with other mental health professionals, they request release from clients to inform the other professionals and strive to establish positive and collaborative professional relationships.

A.8. Multiple Clients: When a counselor agrees to provide counseling services to two or more persons who have a relationship, the counselor clarifies at the outset which person or persons are clients and the nature of the relationships the counselor will have with each involved person. If it becomes apparent that the counselor may be called upon to perform potentially conflicting roles, the counselor will clarify, adjust, or withdraw from roles appropriately.

Section B: Confidentiality and Privacy

B.1.d. Explanation of Limitations: At initiation and throughout the counseling process, counselors inform clients of the limitations of confidentiality and seek to identify situations in which confidentiality must be breached.

B.3. a. Information Shared With Subordinates: Counselors make every effort to ensure that privacy and confidentiality of clients are maintained by subordinates, including employees, supervisees, students, clerical assistants, and volunteers.

B.3.b. Interdisciplinary Teams: When services provided to the client involve participation by an interdisciplinary or treatment team, the client will be informed of the team’s existence and composition, information being shared, and the purposes of sharing such information.

B.4.a. Group Work: In group work, counselors clearly explain the importance and parameters of confidentiality for the specific group.

B.4.b. Couples and Family Counseling: In couples and family counseling, counselors clearly define who is considered “the client” and discuss expectations and limitations of confidentiality. Counselors seek agreement and document in writing such agreement among all involved parties regarding the confidentiality of information. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the couple or family is considered to be the client.

B.5.a. Responsibility to Clients: When counseling minor clients or adult clients who lack the capacity to give voluntary, informed consent, counselors protect the confidentiality of information received—in any medium—in the counseling relationship as specified by federal and state laws, written policies, and applicable ethical standards.

B.5.b. Responsibility to Parents and Legal Guardians: Counselors inform parents and legal guardians about the role of counselors and the confidential nature of the counseling relationship, consistent with current legal and custodial arrangements. Counselors are sensitive to the cultural diversity of families and respect the inherent rights and responsibilities of parents/guardians regarding the welfare of their children/charges according to law. Counselors work to establish, as appropriate, collaborative relationships with parents/guardians to best serve clients.

B.5.c. Release of Confidential Information: When counseling minor clients or adult clients who lack the capacity to give voluntary consent to release confidential information, counselors seek permission from an appropriate third party to disclose information. In such instances, counselors inform clients consistent with their level of understanding and take appropriate measures to safeguard client confidentiality

B.6.c. Permission to Record: Counselors obtain permission from clients prior to recording sessions through electronic or other means.

B.6.d. Permission to Observe: Counselors obtain permission from clients prior to allowing any person to observe counseling sessions, review session transcripts, or view recordings of sessions with supervisors, faculty, peers, or others within the training environment.

Section D: Relationships With Other Professionals

D.1.e. Confidentiality Limits in Judicial  Proceedings: When counselors are required by law, institutional policy, or extraordinary circumstances to serve in more than one role in judicial or administrative proceedings, they clarify role expectations and the parameters of confidentiality with their colleagues.

Section E: Evaluation, Assessment, and Interpretation

E.13.b  Consent  for Forensic Evaluation: Evaluation for Legal Proceedings: Individuals being evaluated are informed in writing that the relationship is for the purposes of an evaluation and is not therapeutic in nature, and entities or individuals who will receive the evaluation report are identified. Counselors who perform forensic evaluations obtain written consent from those being evaluated or from their legal representative unless a court orders evaluations to be conducted without the written consent of the individuals being evaluated. When children or adults who lack the capacity to give voluntary consent are being evaluated, informed written consent is obtained from a parent or guardian.

Section F: Supervision, Training, and Teaching

F.5. Student and Supervisee Responsibilities
F.5.c. Professional Disclosure:
Before providing counseling services, students and supervisees disclose their status as supervisees and explain how this status affects the limits of confidentiality. Supervisors ensure that clients are aware of the services rendered and the qualifications of the students and supervisees rendering those services. Students and supervisees obtain client permission before they use any information concerning the counseling relationship in the training process.

Section H: Distance Counseling, Technology, and Social Media

H.2.a. Informed Consent and Disclosure: Clients have the freedom to choose whether to use distance counseling, social media, and/or technology within the counseling process. In addition to the usual and customary protocol of informed consent between counselor and client for face-to-face counseling, the following issues, unique to the use of distance counseling, technology, and/ or social media, are addressed in the informed consent process:
• distance counseling credentials, physical location of practice, and contact information;
• risks and benefits of engaging in the use of distance counseling, technology, and/or social media;
• possibility of technology failure and alternate methods of service delivery;
• anticipated response time;
• emergency procedures to follow when the counselor is not available;
• time zone differences;
• cultural and/or language differences that may affect delivery of services;
• possible denial of insurance benefits; and
• social media policy.

H.2.b. Confidentiality Maintained by the Counselor:  Counselors acknowledge the limitations of maintaining the confidentiality of electronic records and transmissions.  They inform clients that individuals might have authorized or unauthorized access to such records or transmissions, (e.g., colleagues, supervisees, employees, information technologists.)

H.2.c. Acknowledgment of Limitations: Counselors inform clients about the inherent limits of confidentiality when using technology.  Counselors urge clients to be aware of authorized and/or unauthorized access to information disclosed using this medium in the counseling process.

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*These are only selected Ethical Standards from
American Counseling Association (2014) Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice.
Familiarity with these standards is not a substitute for knowing all of the sections of your Ethics Code.

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