Have you ever heard of duty to warn, duty to protect, or mandatory reporter? This topic is one that comes up when discussing ethics and standards of practice as an AFC®. I have been in the role of mandatory reporter my entire adult life. What exactly does that mean do you ask? I began life as a coach and teacher. These roles have a requirement to protect youth from neglect or abuse. As an AFC® and also with my counseling degree some rules require reporting of information that can cause harm to self or others. Protecting our clients, as well as the people they know is important. Knowing the laws around this topic will allow you to be prepared instead of reactive.

Many of our Standards of Practice have evolved from mental health certifications. It makes sense that AFCPE® adopted several of standards of practice and ethical guidelines from the mental health field. Accredited Financial Counselors® gain very personal and private details of the lives of those they work with. Clients trust us, and tell us a great deal through our time together. Here is the one standard I would like to share information on today as it relates to the history as well as current information on the subject.

Standard of Practice Nine (SP-9):  Confidentiality Requirement: Counselors must keep information related to counseling services confidential unless disclosure is in the best interest of clients, is required for the welfare of others, or is required by law.  When disclosure is required, only information that is essential is revealed, and the client is informed of such disclosure.

The history of duty to warn and protect primarily includes three court cases. The laws allowing a counselor to break confidentiality came into being as a result of the court case Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California in 1976, then expanded in 1983 by Jablonski by Pahls v. United States. In 2004, the duty to warn was expanded to include threats of violence revealed to a therapist by a client’s family members. This was a result of Ewing v Goldstein.

The United States has a variety of ways the duty to protect and the duty to warn are mandated. Duty to warn means a counselor needs to verbally tell someone they are in danger. Duty to warn exists when: the individual threatening harm makes specific threats. Duty to protect means that the counselor needs to do something, and take action. In both cases, other professionals are likely involved. That might mean going to police or assisting the client with a warm handoff to an appropriate resource such as mental health professionals. The way these are handled will be dependent on where you work and the situation that caused concern.

You may work in an environment that requires you to report illegal activity or something that may cause harm to yourself or others. This is one of the things professionals in many fields should be prepared to handle. Not all states require a professional to break confidentiality. Here is a link to a map. Although it was last updated in 2022, it can be beneficial to begin looking at the state you work, and the states where you have clients residing. https://www.ncsl.org/health/mental-health-professionals-duty-to-warn. I am going to include an appendix with a list. You should check the current law in your area to see if it is still the same now as when this was published. 

Now that we have a little background into the duty to warn, the duty to protect, and mandatory reporting, why is it important? Professionals should do a few things to help them be prepared for the event that they need to break confidentiality.

  1. Research your specific requirements in the state you live, where your clients reside, and the rules for the organization you work. 
  2. Practice how you will communicate your reporting requirements with clients. It can feel uncomfortable mentioning your duty to warn/report. With practice, it can become more comfortable, and even help to bring trust into the relationship as they learn you are there to help them with their best interests. Some have this disclaimer in their intake information so that clients are reading it and signing that they are aware of the reporting duty before the first session with a counselor. 
  3. AFC® Professionals working in group settings should develop a group agreement that keeps the information shared in the group confidential as a part of group participation.
  4. Connect with the important professionals in your area. Ask them if they have had referrals when it comes to duty to warn or protect. This may mean speaking to police, mental health professionals, clergy, etc. Being connected in your community is very helpful before a situation involving the necessary breaking of confidentiality.
  5. Keep up to date on laws as they do change.

Although confidentiality is a cornerstone that differentiates the AFC®-client relationship from many other professional relationships, it does have exceptions and can be required by your state or the organization you work for. AFCs® working in certain specialized settings, including those that are funded with federal dollars, may be required to comply with laws and regulations, that differ from what the state you work in require. The most important thing to remember is that we as professionals must ensure the welfare of clients and others. This is why AFC®s should be prepared for duty to warn and duty to protect protocols before something comes up during a session.

Andi Wrenn, AFC® has had a passion for helping people make sound financial decisions for two decades. She is Past President of AFCPE® Board of Directors and the founder of Coaching Capability©

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