Breach of Ethics
Breach of Migrant Youths’ Confidentiality Is Unethical, Unacceptable
By Aradhana Bela Sood, MD, MSHA, Clinical Psychiatry News, March 5, 2020
We are in the healing profession. We practice a trade. We are doctors, therapists, counselors. We work with children, adults, and couples. We document the physical form of our patient after examination, setting the stage for interventions that heal and alleviate suffering. With those who we do not touch physically, we hold out our psychological arms to embrace them in a therapeutic relationship.
Dr. Aradhana Bela Sood
We are privileged to appreciate their deeper selves through voice, unsaid words, and body language. A trust evolves (or might not); deeper exploration where our intuition and technical skill discover what troubles the soul. Healing begins as a delicate dance: As trust is earned, our patients risk vulnerability by revealing their weakest selves.
As healers, we often find ourselves adrift with our own insecurities, our own histories that make us human; our styles may differ but training and the tenets and guidelines set by our professional societies keep us in safe waters. These guidelines are informed by the science of health care research and vetted through centuries of observation and experience of process. “Do no harm” is perhaps one of the major rules of engaging with patients. The scaffolding that our code of ethics provides healing professions trumps external pressures to deviate. If you violate these codes, the consequences are borne by the patient and the potential loss of your license.
Some of you may have read about Kevin Euceda, an adolescent who reportedly was waiting for his immigration interview and ordered to undergo mandatory therapy as part of the immigration protocol. Kevin revealed to his therapist the history of violence he experienced as a child growing up in Honduras. His subsequent initiation into a gang was the only option he had to escape a violent death. Those of us who work with youth from gang cultures know fully that allegiance to a gang is a means to find an identity and brotherhood with the payment by a lifestyle of violence. A therapist faced with this information does not judge but helps the person deal with PTSD, nightmares, and guilt that become part of an identity just as the memories of mines blowing up in the face of combat affect veterans.
But the therapist, who reportedly holds a master’s in rehabilitation counseling and was “a year away from passing her licensing exam,” according to an article published in the Washington Post, followed policy of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The therapist betrayed Kevin by reporting the information he shared with her confidentially to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The reason the therapist gave for the breach was that she was compelled do so because Kevin reported participating in gang activity in Honduras. Subsequently, Kevin was sent to a high-security detention center – and is now facing deportation.
Betraying a patient, profession
Therapy begins as a contract between patient and therapist. The contract stipulates that all that transpires in the process of therapy (usually a 50-minute block of time, usually weekly) is information held by the therapist and patient – and is not to be shared with anyone, including parents, guardians, legal entities, and health care agencies. This allows the gradual sharing of events, emotions, behaviors, and reactions akin to peeling an onion. Memories, reactions, and feelings assist the therapist as they start their quest of discovery of the conflict and how to resolve it. Trust is the central tenet of this journey. The patient thinks: “You will hear me; you will see me you will understand me and help me understand myself.” The doctor responds: “Even I don’t yet know fully what ails you; we will discover that together. … I will not fail your trust.”
So how does this interface with external pressures? The constitution of a free country provides some inviolable protections that prevent derailment of the codes of ethics based on science. The fine line between what are considered sacrosanct ethics of a field – be it health care, climatology, or architecture – and what could be sacrificed in the name of prevailing forces (political or otherwise) has to be under constant scrutiny by the members of the guild. In health care, when patients cannot trust the science, its implementation, or is let down by the clinician, they are unlikely to benefit from treatment. A foundation of distrust paves the way for future therapeutic relationships that are stained with distrust and noncompliance.
The ethics guidelines of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law specify that psychiatrists in forensic roles “should be clear about limitations on confidentiality in the treatment relationship and ensure that these limitations are communicated to the patient.” Again, the therapist in this case is not a psychiatrist, but I would argue that the same rules would apply.
It is reassuring to know that several key groups, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Psychological Association, have all condemned the therapist’s actions. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals must do no harm. We must not stand idly by and allow the kind of professional breach that happened to Kevin continue. Patients who confide in mental health professionals with the promise of confidentiality must be able to do so without fear. Only with confidentiality can the therapeutic relationship thrive.
Dr. Sood is professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and senior professor of child mental health policy, at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.